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Remote people's 'first contact' would be fraught with danger, experts say
September 2nd, 2011
08:38 AM ET

Remote people's 'first contact' would be fraught with danger, experts say

For "uncontacted" peoples, like the isolated tribe that went missing last month, a first encounter can be disastrous.

What began 500 years ago with the first Europeans arriving in the New World is still going on in some pockets of Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

Tribes live in isolation when suddenly, new people, carrying new illnesses, show up.

"These groups have been isolated for so long that they haven't built up any immunity like most of us around the world," says Fiona Watson, research and field director of Survival International. "They just don't have the immunity.”

An illness like the common flu can be devastating for these communities.

Since 1988 the Brazilian government has been leaving isolated tribes alone, but monitoring and protecting them from a distance, by satellite and plane.

Only when tribes ask for contact, or are put in danger from other outsiders, will authorities consider making contact.

Following a strict protocol makes first contact possible without anyone becoming ill, says Dr. Alexandre Padilha, Brazil's Minister of Health.

Government officials will administer some 15 different vaccine shots.

"We use such vaccines that are not regularly distributed in the public national system in Brazil, like smallpox" says Padilha. "We try to explain to the Indian people the importance of those vaccines."

Brazil's missing tribe may have fled the suspected drug traffickers passing through their land, but they also may have made contact, which Watson says would be "extremely dangerous."

Health officials in Brazil know the dangers first hand.  Contacting and integrating the indigenous peoples was government policy before 1988.

"What they realized is that when they were making these first contacts, which was precisely because of this question of disease, it wasn't uncommon," says Watson, "within the first year of contact, for up to fifty percent of the tribe to die."


soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Thor

    It's good that humans learn this practice. Perhaps now, humans can understand to leave those that would stand off to observe..... alone. Chasing down a "prey" might very well end up in an unintended contact which the "prey" is attempting to avoid due to knowledge of a transfer of contaminant. Sometimes it is good to think before you swing....

    September 2, 2011 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. James

    Are we sure first contact with previously uncontacted tribes started with the Europeans 500 years ago? Are we sure isolated tribes had not contacted each other all throughout mankinds history?

    Always blaming the white guys for everything.

    September 2, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KeithTexas

      Well, the white guys have killed millions of indigenous peoples both intentionally and by accident. They aren't blaming them, just trying not to repeat history.

      September 4, 2011 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
    • Sharp

      Cuts both ways. Syphilis & Gonorrhea were both acquired from indigenous peoples.

      September 4, 2011 at 13:11 | Report abuse |
  3. Julnor

    These isolated tribes are clearly living poverty. They need to be put on welfare and they need to be forced to buy health insurance. It's for their own good.

    September 2, 2011 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KeithTexas

      They need to make them pay their property taxes too.

      September 4, 2011 at 11:46 | Report abuse |
  4. A. Pie

    it's big progress that the Brazilian authorities keep watch over these isolated peoples instead of trying to control their lives. I've worked with Amazonian indians in Brazil who have some contact with mainstream culture but have limited their contact to the extent that their daily way of life is pure and ancient. I know a Huni Kuin shaman who comes to Rio occasionally to share his healing practices, which are ancient and unadulterated, and when he first started going to the city, he had to learn about money and stores and phones, etc. But even though these things are part of his city visits these days, his basic orientation comes from his tribe's culture, and he remains unseduced by modern culture, and is able to share his pure ways with people in the city. It is a lovely balance.
    By the way, he's told me abouta n Amazonian tribe that lives in complete isolation, refusing any contact with non-indigenous peoples. They call them the "Angry Indians", because they are so protective of their culture and so unwilling to allow any cultural contamination, that they kill, no questions asked, anyone - even other Indians - who have had contact with non-indigenous peoples. You gotta respect their fierce desire to not allow their culture to be co-opted...

    September 4, 2011 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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