Indigenous Yukpa Venezuelans Suffer Unidentified Illness

Venezuelan authorities are investigating an unexplained illness affecting the country's indigenous Yukpa people that has so far claimed five lives and affected dozens more over the past week.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

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Around 1.5% of Venezuelans indentify as indigenous (Yukpa, Bari and Wayuu pictured above). (Global Response)
Around 1.5% of Venezuelans indentify as indigenous (Yukpa, Bari and Wayuu pictured above). (Global Response)
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Merida, 12th September 2013 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities are investigating an unexplained illness affecting the country's indigenous Yukpa people that has so far claimed five lives and affected dozens more over the past week.

“We are still waiting for the [investigation] results to confirm what had happened to our family and why so many unexpectedly died,” local Yukpa community coordinator Amalia Perez told state news agency AVN earlier this week.

The first cases of the illness were reported on 7 September, when 59 Yukpa from the Machiques de municipality in Zulia state were reportedly admitted to various medical centres in the area.

On Tuesday another 23 Yukpa were admitted to a Stage II Barrio Adentro hospital in the municipality of Jesús María Semprun, in Zulia's south west.

Many of the ill Yukpa reportedly suffered from symptoms including malaise, headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting and psychomotor agitation. The latter refers to purposeless movements caused by stress or anxiety.

A further 15 indigenous Venezuelans of the Bari ethnicity were hospitalised in the municipality on the same day. The Bari are an ethnic group closely related to the Yukpa.

Children are among the sick.

The mayor of Machiques de Perija has since confirmed that five Yukpa have died, and an investigation has been launched.

Speaking to Venezuelan media earlier this week, regional health secretary Tania Mesa stated that health authorities are undertaking toxicology tests on those affected. Authorities should have results in the coming days, according to Mesa.

Initially, there was some speculation that fumigation in the area could be linked to the illness. Mosquito killing fumigation is routine in many parts of Venezuela where insect borne diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria are known to occur. Fumigation was conducted in some parts of Zulia state last month.

However, earlier this week regional deputy health secretary Ricardo Portillo reported that tests on natural water sources in the area didn't find any evidence of chemical contamination. According to Portillo, health authorities have since ruled out the possibility that fumigation could be linked to the illness.

“If it were a chemical poisoning, it would also have affected animals in the area such as ducks, chickens, goats, dogs, etcetera,” Portillo has stated, according to El Nacional.

According to a report from Panorama, members of indigenous community have indicated that many of the sick may have consumed the same alcohol prior to falling ill.

“They had been having a gathering since Saturday...on Monday night they went to bed and began to feel bad,” said  Rosa Castillo, the sister Kelvin Enrique Castillo, one of the casualties of the illness.

The sale of alcohol in the affected areas has reportedly now been restricted by authorities.

According to AVN, more than 50 people affected by the illness and their families are now being monitored by health workers. A special committee of state and national health officials has been established to manage the situation.

“Children and the elderly are being evaluated daily,” Perez told AVN.

“We are calm and confident in the authorities because we really need an answer to this tragedy,” stated Perez.

Numbering around 10,000, the Yukpa are an Amerindian ethnicity living in the mountainous in the far west of Venezuela and neighbouring Colombia.

Yukpa communities in the Sierra de Perija region have been engaged in a long-running land dispute with local cattle ranchers. In March, Yukpa chief and land rights activist Sabino Romero was gunned down in Zulia state. In July authorities announced that an arrest had been made in connection to the killing. The investigation into Romero's death is ongoing, but interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres has previously indicated that the chief may have been assassinated in relation to the land dispute.