The Candoshi people in Peru's northern Amazon jungle are close to extinction from a hepatitis B infection that has gone unchecked since 2000, tribal leaders and health officials said.
"My people are suffering, we're in real danger of extinction," said Candoshi chief, or Apu, Venancio Ucama Simon.
Standing next to a Candoshi woman who doctors said only had two years left to live thanks to hepatitis-induced cirrhosis, Ucama called on the government to declare a health emergency in his region.
Speaking through an interpreter in Lima, Ucama accused Peru's health authorities of decades of inattention, letting hepatitis B and other diseases run unchecked, threatening to wipe out not only the Candoshi but other indigenous groups, including the Shapra, Awajun, Achuar and Huambisa.
All the ethnic groups live in Peru's remote Datem del Maranon province, in the country's north.
Shortly after Ucama's appeal, Health Minister Oscar Ugarte held a press conference to declare a health emergency in the area to tackle the hepatitis B epidemic.
"We will guarantee permanent human and economic resources to launch a massive inoculation drive against that disease," he told reporters.
Gianina Lucana, a Candoshi nurse working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said at Ucama's press conference that "so far, 80 people have died from hepatitis B since 2000" in her region.
She said the disease broke out in the 1990s, when Occidental Petroleum Corporation was granted exploration rights in her jungle region.
"We had no cases of the disease before then," she added.
But she noted the lack of reliable data on how many of her people have been infected with hepatitis B. The latest statistics, in 2000, mentioned 169 cases.
"From that time to now, however, things have deteriorated badly. There have been lots of deaths apparently from hepatitis B, but it's been impossible to determine exactly how many because of lack of medical attention," the nurse said.
Ucama complained that federal and local health authorities were trading blame for the plight of the Candoshi and citing the high cost of hepatitis B treatment as a reason for the inattention.
"Does that mean that because it's very expensive they're going to let our people die out?" asked Lucana.
The Candoshi population is currently estimated to number 2,400. It has been praised for its conservationist culture, which the WWF said has helped restore Amazon wildlife around lake Rimachi.