Isolated Andaman tribe hit by measles epidemic

May 8, 2006

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The isolated Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean have been hit by a measles epidemic which could wipe them out. Seven Jarawa children have been admitted to hospital. The outbreak is the second to strike the 270-strong tribe since they first had contact with outsiders in 1998.

It is not known how many Jarawa now have measles. During the 1999 epidemic, 108 Jarawa are known to have caught it. Like many little-contacted tribal peoples, they are particularly vulnerable.

Indian settlers invading their land increasingly threaten the Jarawa. As well as bringing previously unknown diseases, the settlers poach the game the Jarawa depend on, and there has been sexual abuse of Jarawa women. In 2002, the supreme court ordered the closure of the road that cuts illegally through the Jarawa forest, but the authorities have defied this, not only keeping the road open but actually widening it. Survival has repeatedly warned that this puts the Jarawa at grave risk of potentially fatal diseases.

Many tribal peoples have been destroyed by measles. In the 19th century, it wiped out at least half of the Great Andamanese on one island and all those on another island. That tribe, once 5,000 strong, now numbers only 41 people.

During the 1999 outbreak, the medical response was competent, and it is hoped that appropriate assistance will again be forthcoming; it is also possible that the tribe has some immunity derived from the earlier epidemic.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said today, ‘This is the second warning for India which holds the future of this unique people in its hands. If the Jarawa are to survive, the road must be closed and invasion and poaching stopped immediately. That is Indian law. By failing to abide by it, India risks the annihilation of one of the world's most vulnerable peoples.'

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Photos and footage available. For more information call Miriam Ross on (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or email [email protected]