Venezuelan health workers say an epidemic that may be malaria has killed dozens of people, decimating three villages of the Yanomami Indians, whose struggle for survival in a remote part of the Amazon rain forest has attracted worldwide support.
Two indigenous health workers who visited the area told The Associated Press on Friday that village chiefs told them that about 50 people have died recently, many of them children.
"There are still many, many sick people," Andres Blanco said by telephone from Puerto Ayacucho in southern Venezuela. Blanco, a Yanomami health worker in a government program for the indigenous communities, alerted regional officials this month after trekking for days to visit three remote villages.
He returned by helicopter last weekend with a team of government doctors who administered medication and confirmed that many survivors are also infected with malaria.
A regional health official, Dr. Carlos Botto, said the initial accounts and tests have shown there was some type of epidemic and evidence of malaria. But he said the number of deaths remained unclear and further tests were needed to determine if other diseases could be involved. He said other officials were analyzing results of the five-day medical mission.
"What's certain is that there was an epidemic with deaths," Botto said in a telephone interview. He said the number of deaths reported by those in the communities was just an estimate.
"The number could be lower, but in any case it's an important, alarming number," said Botto, who leads a program focused on river blindness at a government institute, the Amazon Center of Research and Control of Tropical Diseases in Puerto Ayacucho.
Health Ministry officials in Caracas did not return repeated calls from the AP seeking comment, nor did the government's epidemiologist in Amazonas state.
Blanco said when he first reached the area on foot in mid-October, leaders of the three tiny communities told him that 51 people — out of roughly 200 who lived there — had died in recent months. Blanco said there have been at least three more victims since.
"I've never seen it like this," said Shatiwe Luis Ahiwei, another Yanomami health worker who assisted in the medical mission and said about 100 more malaria cases had been identified in the area, more than half of them the deadly falciparum strain. The sick have had symptoms including high fever, shivering, vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
The Yanomami are one of the largest isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon, with a population estimated at roughly 30,000 on both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. They have maintained their language as well as traditions including face paint and wooden facial ornaments piercing their noses, cheeks and lips.
Their forest-dwelling society has long been a focus of studies by anthropologists. Human rights and environmental activists have championed the group's effort to preserve its culture and rain forest in the face of pressures from the outside world — a struggle that led to the 1983 musical "Yanomamo," which was adapted for television as "Song of the Forest," narrated by the rock star Sting.
Isolation has left the Yanomami vulnerable to many illnesses such as measles, yellow fever and hepatitis that have been spread by outsiders.
Indigenous rights activist Christina Haverkamp said that the government response has been slow and inadequate, and that doctors need access to helicopters to reach people in other areas where similar situations have been reported.
"Many Yanomami are dying and need help," said Haverkamp, a German who runs the organization Yanomami-Hilfe and has worked among the Yanomami for two decades in Venezuela and Brazil.
Malaria is common in the Yanomami region, and Haverkamp said she has caught it four times over the years. But she said she has never seen such a serious outbreak.
"It's a catastrophe and also a scandal that they still don't ... have it under control," she said.
Officials in President Hugo Chavez's government insist they have improved and expanded medical care through a program called the Yanomami Health Plan, investing in clinics and also training some of the Yanomami to be health workers for their own villages.
American missionaries belonging to the group New Tribes Mission used to aid sick villagers, but in 2005 Chavez expelled them, accusing them of conducting espionage.
"With the missionaries, health care was better under control," at least in areas where they worked, Haverkamp said.
Nationwide, the Health Ministry says 39,658 malaria cases have been reported so far in 2010, an increase of about 42 percent compared to the same period last year. The report does not list fatalities.
Haverkamp suggested the spike in the mosquito-borne illness among the Yanomami may be due to an influx of malaria-infected Brazilian gold miners working in illegal camps near indigenous settlements, and she said the military should evict the miners.
Information about disease outbreaks has often proven difficult to confirm among the Yanomami, in part because it is their custom not to speak about the dead and also because many villages have only sporadic contact with the outside world.
Last year, health officials reported six deaths among the Yanomami due to respiratory illnesses that the officials suspected might have included swine flu, but no tissue samples were analyzed in time to confirm it.
The Yanomami typically cremate their dead. In funeral rituals, they mix the ashes with mashed bananas and water, and drink it to honor the deceased.
But Blanco said that due to the many deaths in the three villages — Maiweteri, Pooshiteri and Awakau — some bodies had simply been left out in the forest. He said he saw a few corpses.
"It was too much to burn all of them, as is our custom," Ahiwei said.