August 12, 2009 / 6:45 PM / 10 years ago

Peru finds swine flu in Amazon tribe, more at risk

LIMA, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Members of an Amazon tribe have tested positive for the new H1N1 swine flu, Peruvian health officials said on Wednesday, raising concerns the deadly virus could spread to more remote communities with limited defenses against disease.

The seven cases, reported in the Matsigenka tribe, were confirmed by the health ministry’s regional office in southeastern Peru. All seven people have recovered.

But because the tribe makes its home along the Urubamba River, near a reserve set aside for so-called uncontacted tribes, human rights groups fear the H1N1 virus could spread to the more isolated people.

Communities living in voluntary isolation have historically been vulnerable to diseases brought by outsiders, with indigenous populations in the Americas having suffered centuries of losses after Europeans arrived.

"Isolated tribes have no immunity to the infectious diseases that circulate though our industrial society and will be particularly susceptible to swine flu," Dr. Stafford Lightman, a professor of medicine at Britain’s Bristol University, said in a statement by London-based rights group Survival International.

H1N1 swine flu has spread around the world since it emerged in April, killing more than 1,400 people and sickening hundreds of thousands. The World Health Organisation estimates the virus could eventually affect 2 billion people.

Peru, which is considering the creation of five new reserve areas, frequently comes under fire from critics who contend it does not do enough to protect remote jungle tribes.

Estimates of how many uncontacted tribes there are in Peru and neighboring Brazil vary widely, from several to 100.

The Peruvian Amazon has vast, and still largely untapped, oil and natural gas reserves and the government is encouraging companies to invest there as a way to spur economic growth and transform the country into a net energy exporter.

Peru’s uncontacted tribes are being threatened by illegal loggers, energy workers, ranchers, poachers and overzealous tourists, said Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry.

"In times of a global pandemic, it is even more important than ever that their land rights are recognized and protected before it is too late," he said. (Reporting by Marco Aquino and Dana Ford; Editing by Terry Wade and John O’Callaghan)

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