Disease strikes 16% of isolated Andaman tribe

Forty-two children from the isolated Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands have been hit by disease in the last three weeks, in an epidemic which could wipe them out. The figure represents 16 percent of the tribe's total population of 270.

Survival received reports last week that seven Jarawa children were in hospital with measles. The local authorities have since denied any recent outbreak of measles among the Jarawa, and have said that several had been suffering from ‘heat rash'. When 108 Jarawa contracted measles in 1999, the same authorities denied that the Jarawa had had measles, but were forced to concede several weeks later following the testimony of doctors on the islands.

A reliable source informed Survival today that 17 Jarawa children are currently in G B Pant Hospital in the town of Port Blair, in a ward guarded by police. The children are reported to be suffering from various diseases including pneumonia and eye problems – both common after-effects of measles. Twenty-five others were admitted to the hospital on 22 April, and were taken back to their forest several days later.

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.

Indian settlers invading their land increasingly threaten the Jarawa's survival. 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.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said today, ‘By failing to abide by its own laws protecting the Jarawa, India risks wiping this unique tribe out forever. The road must be closed and land invasion and poaching stopped, before it is too late.'

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