Embracing disease

The Jarawas of Andaman Islands are dying from a number of diseases

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

in october 1997, the Jarawas of the Andaman islands made their first contact with the 'settlers' or the people from mainland India residing in the neighbourhood. Since August this year -- barely two years since they first stepped out of their remote forest habitat -- the tribe is afflicted with a severe epidemic of measles and other infections.

The first death was reported on August 16, when a young Jarawa woman died due to acute broncho-pneumonia congestion. A month later, around 30 Jarawas were admitted to the G B Pant Hospital. By September-end, 59 Jarawas of an estimated population of 300 were in hospital suffering from measles, post-measles broncho-pneumonia infections and also conjunctivitis.

What is very worrying is that the history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is replete with the decimation of such tribal communities by diseases that they contracted after coming in contact with the outside world. The most chilling example is that of the Great Andamanese. Hundreds of them died in epidemics of pneumonia in 1868, measles in 1877 and influenza in 1896. Combined with other factors like shrinkage of forest habitat because of deforestation and settlements, they were reduced from a population of around 5,000 in the earlier part of the 19th century to less than 30 today.

There is also the a possibility that pockets of infection exist deep in the forest and more of the tribe members may get infected with measles. "It could well be the beginning of the end," says Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology ( sane ), the first to bring the episode to light.

The outbreak of the disease is an outcome of the policies and attempts of the administration to establish friendly contacts with this hostile community, which had always shunned interaction with the outside world. Persistent efforts are being made to assimilate the Jarawas into the modern world, but will this move not push them towards total annihilation?

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