Top officials fly to Andamans as disease strikes Jarawa tribe

May 15, 2006

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A group of top Indian officials flew to the Andaman Islands on Friday, at the end of the week in which news broke of a disease epidemic among the isolated Jarawa tribe. A large number of Jarawa children had been hospitalised with various diseases including pneumonia and eye problems – both common after-effects of measles. The Jarawa children have now been returned to their forest.

The group of officials, set up by the Indian government this year to determine the future of the Jarawa, visited the Jarawa reserve and met members of the tribe.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The government visit was well-timed. Never before has the need to protect the Jarawa and their land been so urgent. India must comply with its own laws and prevent yet another tribe being annihilated.'

Supporters of the Jarawa believe that a number of the children were in hospital with measles. The local authorities have denied any recent outbreak of measles among the tribe, 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.

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. Entering the reserve via the road and the western coast, they are bringing previously unknown diseases, sexually abusing Jarawa women and introducing alcohol. 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.

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