Will John Chau’s body spread disease among the Sentinelese? Scientists differ

While the body will definitely give out pathogens, whether or not the Sentinelese are susceptible to them is not known

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 27 November 2018
Sentinelese gathered on a beach of their home island. Credit: Survival International Sentinelese gathered on a beach of their home island. Credit: Survival International

Leading microbiologists differ on whether the decomposing body of John Allen Chau, the American missionary killed by the Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island could cause the tribe to be wiped out due to disease.

On November 27, The Indian Express reported that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration had decided to suspend expeditions to retrieve the body of Chau.

It quoted a senior police officer who had attended a meeting of top police officers, anthropologists and forest officials the day before. The officer said the administration was deciding to suspend operations so as to not disturb the Sentinelese in any way.

“Yes, if the body of any human or animal from the mainland gets decomposed at any virgin island, the microbiome of the dead body will spill around and will contaminate the fauna of that island. This microbiome will include normal flora of the person (or animal) in gut and lungs but can also include pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites, which may carry drug resistance also,” Sarman Singh, Director & CEO, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhopal, told Down To Earth.

He added: “As far as the specific case of Chau is concerned, it is difficult to say whether he was carrying any drug-resistant pathogen or not but all living mammals have millions and millions of types of bacteria which are commensal in the guts and lungs.”

Prominent microbiologist Jayaraman Gowrishankar, who is former director, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad and fellow of the Indian National Science Academy or INSA, has a different view.

“It is very unlikely that John Chau's body would harbour any pathogens that may be transmitted on the island. But the point to be noted here is that the Sentinelese are not as defenceless as we would like to assume. Having survived for so long, they too would have resistance to most if not all diseases. The moot question is will Chau’s body transmit pathogens to which the Sentinelese have no immunity? And to me, that chance is remote. If we look at history, a frequently-cited example is the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, where native peoples (like the Aztec or Inca) fell prey to European diseases because they did not have resistance to them at all. I don’t think that is the case with the Sentinelese,” he told Down To Earth.  

Gowrishankar might be right. It is worthwhile to note that in 2006 too, the Sentinelese had killed two fishermen who had strayed to their island. They had then buried the two bodies on the beach. One of the bodies was later retrieved by authorities. But the second was not.

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