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Swine Flu Rates Up to 5 Times Higher for Native Groups

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
October 9, 2009
 
Swine flu deaths among U.S. children are "shooting up," the U.S. government reported today, generating thousands of headlines online within hours.

Meanwhile native peoples are suffering a swine flu infection rate four to five times higher than that of the general population, a recent report says.


The world's indigenous people—tribes and other groups who inhabit the lands where their cultures arose—are at greatest risk from the swine flu pandemic, native-rights groups say.

Several factors make native peoples more vulnerable to the globally widespread virus, which so far has proven to be no more dangerous than the seasonal flu.

For one, native peoples' immune systems are particularly vulnerable to outside germs, experts say.

"Isolated peoples have little or no immunity to outside diseases, meaning that any contact with outsiders with swine flu could spell disaster for the tribes," said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.

In addition, native groups often have relatively low standards of living, which puts the groups behind the curve, in terms education, public health, and infrastructure, according to the report, released last week by Survival International, a London-based group that advocates for native cultures. Many indigenous communities live in poverty, with poor sanitation, and overcrowding.

Swine Flu: Déjà Vu?

Swine flu is just the latest example of outside diseases decimating indigenous cultures.

In the 15th century catastrophic measles and smallpox epidemics brought by foreign invaders ravaged native populations in the Americas. And in 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic was especially hard on indigenous populations, according to a 2008 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Indigenous peoples in Canada, Sweden, Norway, and the United States had estimated mortality rates 3 to 70 times higher than non-indigenous populations, the 2008 study found.

Swine Flu State of Emergency

Recently, in the western Canadian province of Manitoba, a surge in H1N1 swine flu infection rates caused a major native group, the Manitoba First Nations, to declare a state of health emergency.

The Canadian government has sent medical supplies—including body bags, hand sanitizers, and masks—to the province, according to Survival International.

First Nations people make up only 10 percent of Manitoba's population, yet so far they have accounted for roughly a third to a half of all the province's reported H1N1 swine flu cases, according to Grand Chief Ron Evans, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

At least six people in the province have died of swine flu, according to CBC News.

Evans, who recently testified before Canada's national parliament, emphasized the roles of bad public health services and cramped conditions in swine flu transmission. "You have to fix basic problems," he said.

Likewise, in Australia, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (see map) have accounted for 10 percent of H1N1 swine flu hospitalizations and deaths, though they constitute only 2.5 percent of the country's population.

The report also said Australian Aborigine populations are particularly vulnerable because of underlying chronic diseases, some of which may be underdiagnosed.

Swine Flu Threatens "Unseen" Tribes?

In Peru's remote Amazon, migrant oil company workers have been exposing more and more isolated native groups to new germs, said Atossa Soltani of the California-based rights group Amazon Watch.

Peruvian law requires oil companies to develop guidelines for how oil workers should interact with native peoples.

(Related: "Oil Exploration in Amazon Threatens 'Unseen' Tribes.") Already seven Machiguenga Indians—a tribe in southeastern Peru—have been infected with swine flu in the jungle community of Timpia, according to a person who answered the phone at a major Machiguenga Indian federation, known by its Spanish initials COMARU. The person, who is not authorized to speak to the press, said that no one had died.

Both COMARU and Amazon Watch have long called on the Peruvian government to make oil companies tread carefully when working near remote rain forest cultures.
 

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