What we can learn from the 1980s jungle epidemic

According to Michael Stuart Ani.

JUNGLE EPIDEMIC BACK STORY – In 1987, much like today, elements of the Brazilian Government, their media and international mining corporations purposely created an illegal gold rush into Yanomami country. Over 20,000 gold miners spread from Brazil across the jungle border into Venezuela. At the time, the Yanomami were considered the last intact indigenous nation on earth with minimal outside contact and no resistance to introduced diseases. The Brazilian government claimed that they could not control the illegal gold miners entre into Yanomami territory, but the facts were that the government was allowing the corporate mining companies to fly in heavy equipment and gold miners with DC3 airplanes and the gold out in armed helicopters from the extremely remote region. There were no Venezuelan gold miners in the region.

I was in Yanomami country at the time with my partner, Francisco Fuentes, the recently retired top Nation Guard field medic in the then, Amazon territory of Venezuela. We were there setting up an economic cooperative to bring badly needed health supplies to the Yanomami through the international sale of their crafts.

Francisco and I were the first to report the epidemics entry into Venezuela. When the epidemic first hit, Francisco obtained permission to dispense chloroquine as an antimalaria and antibiotics which we did from giant condiment jars in our forty-foot bongo canoe. For a couple months it appeared that we were having some impact in the extremely remote jungle region between the two countries borders. But the epidemics, which included: malaria, dengue fever, parasites hepatitis, schistosomiasis and other diseases, quickly grew far beyond our limited abilities. At this point the Venezuelan military got involved and because of our close personal relationship with the Yanomami, the Venezuelan government invited us to remain a bridge of communication between their verging medical effort and the tribes of the region.  

We created the Amazonia Foundation (AF) IN 1992 and the first problem we dealt with involved the outstanding doctors and medical officers who were getting sick from treating the Yanomami. My job became organizing the Yanomami to participate in the outreach medical program and also working to keep the doctors healthy so they could administer healthcare to the Yanomami. The key was that the Venezuelan government was the only one at the time that was actually taking a serious approach to helping the tribes. The Brazilian government was looking at it as a way to get rid of them and promoted unsuccessful efforts to save face in the media and nothing more.

With our minimal financial resources, AF started an indigenous training school in Puerto Ayacucho where tribal members were taught to do basic malaria tests, administer injections and learn the correct medication without being able to read. The indigenous health workers quickly became so adept and could survive so much longer in the jungle that they took over a lot of field work in bigger regions because one doctor could have many more working hands.

During this time, I caught a case of malaria that almost killed me. At the time I did not know about Artemesia, the natural cure for malaria and only survived because a dear friend who was an ex-Air Force doctor took the time to find the rare pharmaceutical that undoubtedly saved my life. I make this point to show that I also believe in pharmaceuticals when they are used properly.

I was bedridden for over four months and took 8 months to get back to the jungle and the Yanomami. By that time, the epidemic had exploded into a literal plague as the politics surrounding the epidemic became as thick as the jungle mud. 

After ten years of being deported from Venezuela, the infamous anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon returned around this time. I was the first outsider who was allowed by the Yanomami to enter the Alto Ocamo after the measles epidemic which Chagnon was falsely blamed for by the New Tribes Mission evangelist missionaries who had actually caused the epidemic and very much resisted our medical effort.

The government backed a joint effort with president Andres Perez’s mistress, Cecelia Matos’ Fundafaci foundation at the helm and we now had the tremendous resources of the military. As I became the head scout for the Venezuelan government, millions of dollars of pharmaceuticals flooded in. Unfortunately, the main drug, chloroquine, was having only a 12% success rate. Chloroquine also was used as a prophylactic which only worked while you were taking it and as soon as the doctors left the Yanomami were re-infected and died.

Spending my days hunting and fishing with the tribe to feed everyone and then helping the doctors I began to see the pathogens as prey and developed instincts to know their nature and which way and through what part of the population it moved. Now I believe there are Forest Protectors, far younger than I that have also developed this skill which gives them the ability to know which way the epidemic is spreading before it arrives in a place to do harm. So preventive, “fire walls” can be put in place to protect villages that the pathogens are heading towards.

Back in the 80’s epidemics a friend with major family medical clout introduced me to the plant Artemisia annua which was having outstanding success in the South East Asia malaria fight. With funding from Anita Roddick of the Body Shop and VIRGIN, Sir Richard Branson, AF began to grow Artemisia in Venezuela. Overnight, the struggle changed with the introduction of Artemesia, which not only had an 87% success rate with malaria, but it was also discovered to be outstanding for treating other diseases such as dengue fever, snail’s disease and a variety of other ailments and parasites where pharmaceuticals fell short. Artemesia was the game changer during these epidemics and after using it, I never caught malaria again.

FINAL STATEMENT – This Amazon Protocol is a boiler plate to begin a process with an actual plan, but surely not the complete health project. We will have to be set up to think on our feet and quickly make decisions as the pathogens do the same looking for new hosts to survive. While the Amazonia Foundation remains as a monument to actually handling epidemics in the rain forest, myself and my allies have created a new foundation, “Talking Plants” a 501-c3 foundation for the current situation. I am hoping that all those that are already giving so much to help, realize the importance of a plan and protocol for fighting epidemics and integrate this plan into their own process. I also pray that world leaders wake up and realize that without the amazon rain forest and the indigenous people who protect it, all of our future will be lost.

We are protecting what is needed to protect us all.

Sincerely, Michael Stuart Ani.