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
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
News
news
Sport
Lewis Hamilton with the Santander trophy after winning last year’s British Grand Prix
F1It's the race organisers who are to blame, apparently
News
peopleFormer Disney CEO isn't going to win any fans with this quote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

    Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test