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Another World in the Amazon
Deep in the jungle. That’s almost an understatement. The Google map location is blanketed with green on every side. The travel from Quito, Ecuador, necessary to get to the village in the Amazon Basin where Dr. Edward DiPreta worked during a medical mission trip in May was an adventure in itself. He explains, “From Quito, we had to drive four hours to where the road ended to take a puddle-jumper over the jungle canopy to a very small landing strip. Once we landed, it was an hour-long ride by canoe up the river to the village.” This is a place so remote from civilization as we know it, it is almost beyond comprehension. It is the home of the Achuar.
Amazon Watch states, “The Achuar indigenous people live in the remote headwaters of the Amazon rainforest on both sides of the Peru-Ecuador border. The Achuar have suffered devastating environmental and health impacts from 35 years of oil drilling.” Dr. DiPreta’s mission with Flying Doctors of America was to go to an area where the Achuar continue living in a jungle/rainforest, free from contamination and provide medical and dental care to these people who hold deep historical, cultural and spiritual ties to the land.
Dr. DiPreta was the dermatologist in the group that also included specialists in geriatric care, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatric care and dental care. He isn’t a stranger to trips like this. When he served in the Army, he performed humanitarian missions in Brazil and El Salvador, among other places. He has gone on medical mission trips with Flying Doctors of America for the past 5 years, including trips to Guatamala, the Panama Outback, and the Peruvian Amazon. He says this was without question the most remote location that he has been to. The trips out from the “main” village to visit other villages, which were home to about 100-200 people, took 1-2 hours by canoe.
“They were very happy, nice, welcoming people,” said Dr. DiPreta. “What we thought was really odd was there were no elderly people. When we asked about this, we were told by the chief that he was the oldest. He was about 50 years old. There are no elderly people, because if they get sick, they die. It’s the same for the children because there is no medical care.”
Dr. DiPreta explains that for the most part the villagers were very healthy with strong immune systems, but if they become sick with disease or illness due to an aging or deteriorating immune system, they die. They have no antibiotics or medicines to cure infections. There is no local access to hospitals or medical care. The children are healthy for the same reason. Those who had birth defects or illness as infants generally died. This is a place where only the strong survive.
Ironically, the Achuar do not have some of the medical conditions that we do because they are not being exposed to processed foods and chemicals, surviving on a very basic diet of what they can forage or kill in the jungle. They eat fish, birds, monkeys and other animals that they shoot with blow guns, and plants, roots, fruit, berries, and nuts that they gather. They drink rainwater and chicha, a fermented drink that begins with chewed (yes, chewed) manioc root. “They don’t have sugar or soda,” says Dr. DiPreta, “so diabetes and tooth decay are non-issues.” Funny when you consider they’d never seen toothbrushes before. The main medical issues for the Achuar are malaria, dengue fever, and abscesses or open wounds needing treatment. Intestinal worms were also common, but would only be treated in the elderly, very young, or pregnant women, because they have a greater need for nutrients that might be sapped by the parasites. Healthy adults with the parasites were not treated because they would only return after treatment is stopped because they will continue to drink the same water.
And the parasites aren’t the only dangerous thing in the water. Dr. DiPreta’s son, Nathan, accompanied him on this trip and was worried about the piranhas. Dr. DiPreta says, “I asked the natives if the piranhas were a problem, and they told me that was the least of what you have to worry about in there.” Dr. DiPreta’s wife, Laura, has also accompanied him on the Flying Doctors trips, but abstains from the more remote trips or those that can go into war or disaster torn areas, like Haiti. These trips are a phenomenal way to experience a world you might never otherwise see. When Dr. DiPreta describes the week he spent in the Amazon Basin, he paints a picture of another world: a place full of monkeys, toucans, tapir, and pink dolphins; where they run a generator for lights to have a party; where kids run around with machetes and woman do not speak to or make eye contact with men; where they paint their faces to represent the animal they feel like that day. It is a world where medical care like that provided by Dr. DiPreta and his group can mean the difference between life and death.