Brazil team probing possible COVID-19 deaths among Yanomami

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Brazilian agency that provides health care for the Indigenous has sent a team to the Yanomami people’s territory in the remote Amazon rainforest to investigate a report that nine children died with COVID-19 symptoms, officials said Thursday.

Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, a member of the Indigenous group who is president of the local health council, alerted the Sesai agency this week that five children had died in one village and four children in another, all with symptoms of the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus. He received the information second-hand from residents of each village.

Hekurari told The Associated Press by phone that the nine victims died in January and were not tested for the coronavirus. He also said that neither of the two villages near the border with Venezuela — Kataroa and Waphuta — had received visits from government health workers in more than 60 days, nor had he heard of any Sesai team headed there as of Thursday afternoon.

Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been widespread concern that Yanomami communal living practices, their distance from modern health facilities and the influx of illegal gold miners into their lands could render them more vulnerable to the virus. So far, the worst of those fears haven’t materialized, with Sesai data saying that of the 541 indigenous people who have died in Brazil from COVID-19, 10 were Yanomami.

Sesai, which is part of Brazil’s health ministry, said in its emailed statement that it investigates all suspected COVID-19 deaths in Indigenous lands. It has a sanitary unit in charge of the Yanomami territory, which is bigger than the U.S. state of Maine and home to 28,000 people in 371 villages.

There are at least 25 people in the Waphuta village with COVID-19 symptoms, Hekurari said, and on Thursday two children with serious symptoms were waiting to flown from Yanomami territory to a hospital in Roraima state’s capital Boa Vista.

Jesem Orellana, a researcher with the state-run Fiocruz Amazonia institute who has worked with Yanomami in the past, said by phone that the group is among the most vulnerable in Brazil. As such, the recent deaths could have been due to COVID-19 or stemmed from another illness like pneumonia and exacerbated by a long period without government medical assistance, Orellana said.

Sesai didn’t immediately provide information about when was the last time its health workers visited the two villages in question.

Indigenous people are in a priority group for Brazil’s coronavirus vaccination program and began receiving their shots last week, with Sesai expecting to inoculate 410,000 Indigenous people over age 18 in a first phase, the agency said in a separate statement.