CARACAS (Venezuela) - VENEZUELAN health workers say an epidemic that may be malaria has killed dozens of people, decimating three villages of the Yanomami Indians, whose struggle for survival in a remote part of the Amazon rain forest has attracted worldwide support.

Two indigenous health workers who visited the area told The Associated Press on Friday that village chiefs told them that about 50 people have died recently, many of them children.

'There are still many, many sick people,' Andres Blanco said by telephone from Puerto Ayacucho in southern Venezuela. Blanco, a Yanomami health worker in a government program for the indigenous communities, alerted regional officials this month after trekking for days to visit three remote villages.

He returned by helicopter last weekend with a team of government doctors who administered medication and confirmed that many survivors are also infected with malaria.

A regional health official, Dr Carlos Botto, said the initial accounts and tests have shown there was some type of epidemic and evidence of malaria. But he said the number of deaths remained unclear and further tests were needed to determine if other diseases could be involved. He said other officials were analysing results of the five-day medical mission.

'What's certain is that there was an epidemic with deaths,' Dr Botto s
aid in a telephone interview. He said the number of deaths reported by those in the communities was just an estimate. 'The number could be lower, but in any case it's an important, alarming number,' said Dr Botto, who leads a program focused on river blindness at a government institute, the Amazon Center of Research and Control of Tropical Diseases in Puerto Ayacucho.

Epidemic hits Amazon villages