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Previously uncontacted tribe returns to rainforest with flu

An Amazon tribe thought to be lost has reappeared — and some of its members have contracted influenza.

Brazil's government department FUNAI, which oversees the affairs of indigenous peoples, recently announced that at least seven members of a long-isolated Amazon tribe are infected with the flu after contact with the outside world. Researchers fear those with influenza will spread the disease to other tribe members who aren't immunized and haven't built up any natural immunity due to their isolation. FUNAI announced that a government-sponsored medical team treated the infected tribe members, but their return home is alarming for the others.

"We can only hope that [the FUNAI team members] were able to give out treatment before the sickness was spread to the rest of the tribe in the forest," Chris Fagan, executive director at the Upper Amazon Conservancy in Jackson, Wyoming, told Science magazine. "Only time will tell if they reacted quickly enough to divert a catastrophic epidemic."

Last month, some of the tribe's members left the forest of the Upper Envira River in Brazil, presumably to escape from illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers in a Peruvian park, Science reports. Their emergence marked the first time in recent history that an uncontacted tribe left its home to visit a settled population, The Independent reports. According to FUNAI's announcement, the group claimed to have been attacked by outsiders, and the Xinane River village "lies along a major route used by cocaine smugglers."

The Rainforest Rescue Coalition speculates that the tribe may be part of a group of Chitonahua people. Researchers estimate there could be as many as 4,000 uncontacted people in the region, making the spread of influenza extremely worrisome. Survival International is currently urging the Peruvian and Brazilian governments to protect the uncontacted tribes.