Indigenous tribes more vulnerable in swine flu outbreaks

Pandemic expected to hit remote, poverty-stricken communities far harder than wealthy Westerners

The only road to St Theresa Point in north-eastern Manitoba is made of ice and lasts just two months. The remote community's 3,200 people, most of them Cree Indians, are squeezed into 530 homes, more than half of them without running water. Until June, a doctor flew in once a week for three days. But since an outbreak of swine flu left more than 200 people ill and sent 12 by air ambulance to Winnipeg, 600km (375 miles) away, Health Canada has been ferrying in more doctors. This autumn, in preparation for the flu season, it is also delivering something else: a supply of body bags.

In Australia, a similar scenario played out in July. An estimated 400 people out of a population of 3,400, more than 90 per cent of them Aboriginal, caught H1N1 influenza on Palm Island off the Queensland coast. In Brazil, a conference on indigenous education was cancelled in September after seven members of the Matsigenka, a tribe living along the Urubamba river in the Peruvian Amazon, tested positive for swine flu.

As health authorities gear up for the northern hemisphere's flu season, the new strain of influenza is expected to hit indigenous peoples far harder than it will healthy, wealthy, urban Westerners. If the outbreaks in Canada and Australia are any guide, native communities could find a tenth of their populations sick, and untold numbers dead.

The World Health Organisation warned in its August briefing note on the pandemic that minorities and indigenous peoples face a far higher risk of hospitalisation and death. "In some studies, the risk in these groups is four to five times higher than in the general population," it said.

Survival International, a London-based charity that tries to protect indigenous peoples, has called on the government of the Andaman Islands to close the Andaman Trunk Road because it runs through land populated by a nomadic tribe. The Jarawa came into contact with outsiders only in 1998; within a year, half of them had suffered respiratory problems after an outbreak of measles.

Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist who works closely with Peru's Matsigenka, said they are not the only tribe he is concerned about. "The arrival of swine flu among the Matsigenka is especially worrying as they are known to have intermittent contact with quite isolated Indian groups living near by," he said.

Scientists and medical researchers have two hypotheses to explain the vulnerability of tribal peoples. The first is that those, like the Jarawa, who have had little contact with the global community simply have immune systems that have never been primed. Kevin Paterson, a Canadian doctor, notes that during the 1918 Spanish flu, 8.5 per cent of American Indians died, but among the more isolated Inuit in Nome, Alaska, the toll was 55 per cent. In Hebron, Labrador, 5,000km to the east, 150 out of 220 Innu were killed. Yet the global fatality rate for Spanish flu was just 2.5 per cent.

The other hypothesis applies to those indigenous populations that live on the fringes of Western society, such as the Cree of St Theresa Point and the Aborigines on Palm Island. For them, the problem is poverty, poor general health and crowded living conditions. "We have in excess of 15 people living in a three-bedroom home, which you wouldn't find in mainstream communities," said Alf Lacey, the mayor of Palm Island. Although Tamiflu was available, many islanders were unaware of it because they are unable to read.

"Influenza has a cure," said Dr Paterson. "It's called affluence."

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    KS1 Primary Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

    KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

    £140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

    Year 1/2 Teacher

    £130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

    Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

    £140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam