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Jungle Paths Lead to Better Health

  • Health workers in the Amazon Rainforest must travel on foot to treat and prevent river blindness in indigenous Yanomami communities. (Photos: The Carter Center)

  • The Yanomami rely on jungle paths, several of which can be seen here, for their everyday needs. Pathways play a key role in the Yanomami worldview, including the concept of health.

  • Daniel Borges Silva, an indigenous health agent, has recruited other Yanomami to treat their communities.

For the indigenous Yanomami people of the Amazon Rainforest, trekking through jungle pathways is a way of life. Such paths serve as the only way in or out of remote Yanomami communities, where the parasitic disease river blindness is transmitted by the bites of tiny black flies.

Paths also figure prominently in Yanomami ideas around health. Particularly, shamans are believed to travel spiritual paths searching for causes of disease. Such understanding is helping The Carter Center find a path to assisting with the elimination of river blindness from the Yanomami. The remote and hard-to-access area along the Venezuela and Brazil border, home to about 30,000 people, is the last place in the Americas where river blindness transmission still occurs.

Johanna Gonçalves Martín, a Venezuelan anthropologist and expert in indigenous culture, worked with The Carter Center to develop a training program that respects the Yanomami understanding of health and healing. She developed a "path to health" concept and formulated visual teaching aids around it. Indigenous health agents and leaders provided feedback on this innovative education plan.

"For me, the most exciting aspect of this approach is the awareness of being in touch with one of the less transformed ethnic groups on the planet," said Alba Lucia Morales of the Carter Center’s Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas. "These people flow to the rhythm of nature, are guided by nature’s signs; they hold a harmonic relationship with the jungle."

Some of the people delivering this education plan are the Yanomami themselves.

More Yanomami are being trained to deliver river blindness treatment and education. One such indigenous health agent is Daniel Borges Silva, who is responsible for the Komitarope area of Venezuela.

Soon after starting, Borges recruited nine Yanomami teammates to treat their local communities and teach prevention.

Each team walks along paths through the jungle in the traditional Yanomami way, harvesting, hunting, and camping on their treks between communities. Serving in both a technical and sociopolitical role, the health agents meet with shamans and community elders to explain their mission and gain their consent to treat the people with Mectizan®, a drug donated by Merck & Co. Inc., USA.

"In the most remote communities, those that could only be reached by small plane or helicopter, the regular presence of external health workers can never be fully guaranteed," Morales said. "The only team members who can get there walking for many hours and days are the Yanomami, since walking and moving through the jungle is part of their daily life."

Involving the Yanomami in improving their own health has fostered development of a treatment style that is more likely to be accepted, successful, and sustainable, anthropologist Gonçalves said. It also could contribute to finding previously unknown communities, she added.

"I envision a network of Yanomami health agents with the highest level of education possible, full support, and an optimal provision of supplies to perform their work," Morales said, “and Yanomami communities that hold the knowledge that allows them to protect their health and live well."

Learn more about the Center's River Blindness Elimination Program »

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