Dozens of indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon’s Javari Valley – an area the size of Switzerland and Denmark combined – have contracted COVID-19, with experts and officials warning the disease poses a huge threat to their lives and culture.

The valley in the west of Brazil’s Amazonas state is part of a region bordering Peru and Colombia that is home to the world’s largest number of isolated indigenous people and others who had contact with outside society for the first time only recently.

Indigenous land in the valley has an estimated population of 6 000 already contacted people living in remote areas, with at least 16 other isolated groups that remain uncontacted.

According to the latest information, about 110 indigenous people have already been infected with the novel coronavirus in the Javari Valley.

Most of them are from the contacted Kanamari tribe, which has about 1 400 members. If the coronavirus continues to travel upriver and infects isolated indigenous communities, the result could be their extermination, warned a local lawyer.

Should COVID-19 reach areas where people have little immunity to modern diseases, then you can expect the worst”, said Elisio Marubo, an attorney for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA).

Indigenous peoples in isolation are at great risk from infectious diseases because they do not have the immunological defences the general population has developed over the years, the country’s indigenous and health authorities have said.

Respiratory diseases are already one of the leading causes of death among Brazil’s native peoples, according to the Ministry of Health.

COVID-19, a viral infection for which there is so far only limited treatment and no vaccine, attacks the lungs and other parts of the body.

“If it reaches isolated communities, a disease like this will wipe out everyone,” warned Marubo.

Brazil has now registered more than 57 000 deaths from COVID-19, giving it the second highest death toll in the world.

No permanent health minister after losing two since April

More than 11 000 of those deaths have occurred in the Amazon, despite the region having only 8% of the country’s population, according to official data.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticised for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The country still has no permanent health minister after losing two since April, following clashes with the president.

Bolsonaro has shunned social distancing and promoted two anti-malarial drugs as remedies, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, despite little evidence they work.

Research released this month by the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) showed the coronavirus mortality rate among indigenous people is 150% higher than the Brazilian average.

The rate of infection per 100 000 inhabitants among indigenous people is 84% higher than the average for Brazil, the study showed.