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Peru to Investigate Shawi Healer Deaths and High Rates of Hepatitis B

Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced that it would investigate reports of the deaths of traditional Shawi healers in the northern Peruvian region of Alto Amazonas and persistently high rates of hepatitis B among Candoshi and Shapra communities in that region recently.

At a press conference on October 3, Vicente Otta, vice minister for intercultural affairs, said the two problems “have not been addressed as urgently as they deserved.”

According to indigenous leaders, 14 traditional healers or shamans from Shawi communities in the Alto Amazonas region have died under unclear circumstances in the past 21 months.

Otta said the public prosecutor’s office in Alto Amazonas had opened investigations into seven of the deaths. Local people reported seven more, but the prosecutor’s office was not investigating those because no bodies had been found, he said.

According to a list provided by the prosecutor’s office in Yurimaguas, the seven cases occurred in different communities in the district of Balsapuerto. One case, that of a former mayoral candidate, may have had a political motive, while the other victims were accused of witchcraft, according to the prosecutor’s office.

Otta said some of the victims had been hacked to death with machetes, while others were shot. Details of the circumstances were sketchy, but he said the victims were apparently attacked on forest trails or along rivers.

Roger Rumrrill, who has written extensively about the Peruvian Amazon and who also spoke at the press conference, said the killings could be motivated by political conflicts, religious differences or prejudice toward traditional healers, because of a lack of understanding of their role in indigenous communities.

He also speculated that some could be perpetrated by people who blamed traditional healers when a sick child died.

Malnutrition and child mortality rates in parts of the rural Amazon “are like those in Haiti,” Rumrrill said. “Children have no resistance” to disease. Traditional healers, who mainly “treat psychosomatic illnesses,” may not be able to cure a child suffering from a contagious disease, he said, and people might blame the healer for the child’s death.

When a shaman dies, he said, the community loses a trove of traditional knowledge about herbs and other natural means of healing.

Otta said representatives from the Culture Ministry, the prosecutor’s office and the governmental Ombudsman’s Office would travel to the area this weekend to investigate the reports and ensure that all the deaths were officially recognized.

He also said a commission of representatives from the Culture, Health and Environment ministries would work with local government officials to address a persistently high prevalence of hepatitis B among Candoshi (also spelled Kandozi) and Shapra communities in Alto Amazonas.

Candoshi and Shapra representatives met with Health Ministry officials on September 30 to request further action to address hepatitis-related health problems.

Large numbers of cases of hepatitis B, which can be transmitted through sexual relations, contact with bodily fluids or from mother to child, were first reported in the area in the 1990s. Some researchers believe the disease was introduced by oil field workers in the area.

In December 2009, the Health Ministry declared an emergency in the Candoshi communities, which numbered some 3,000 people, and steps were taken to provide treatment and improve health-care facilities in the region. Screening of nearly 3,000 Candoshi and Shapra people in 2010 found 56 hepatitis B carriers, according to Health Ministry reports.

A second hepatitis B screening will be done between October 9 and 15, followed by a meeting with local officials and community representatives in the area in early November, according to the vice ministry of intercultural affairs. The ministry also pledged to improve infrastructure in the region, contract health-care personnel and provide technical assistance for vaccinations in remote areas.

An emergency project funded by UNICEF between 2003 and 2006 focused on vaccinating children, particularly newborns, to stop hepatitis transmission. Because the area is isolated and lacks public services, the vaccination effort required the installation of solar-powered refrigerators for storing vaccines.

Because of travel and other expenses related to providing vaccines in such a remote area, a dose of vaccine that costs $1 to administer in Lima, the Peruvian capital, could cost some $35 in the Lake Rimachi area of Alto Amazonas, where Candoshi communities are located, according to a UNICEF report published in 2006.

The report noted that many community members did not clearly understand the origin of the illness and the way it was transmitted. They did, however, associate it with contact with outsiders. As a result, the report said, they were sometimes reluctant to accept health care from outsiders.

The lack of schools was also an obstacle to health-care efforts, the report said, because it made it difficult to teach children about prevention.