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U.N. Finally Acknowledges Its Role In Haiti Cholera Epidemic

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Leadership & Transparency
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When United Nations troops are sent to an area affected by a natural disaster, they are there to help. But after the Haitian earthquake in 2010, many say these troops were the cause of a cholera epidemic.

Until recently, the U.N. denied its responsibility. However, it has finally acknowledged its role in the cholera epidemic. In an email obtained by the New York Times, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said: “Over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.”

A catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010 and killed more than 200,000 people, displacing over 1 million. Ten months later, the Haiti National Public Health Laboratory identified cholera as the culprit behind a sudden increase in Haitians with watery diarrhea and dehydration. Officially 9,200 Haitians died from cholera, but a Doctors Without Borders study finds it could be higher, the New York Times reported in June.

The cholera epidemic was a first for Haiti, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, which never experienced an outbreak of the disease. Cholera is a disease that if untreated can cause death in less than two days, but it is treatable with oral rehydration salt solutions, intravenous fluids or antibiotics. The main transmission method is ingesting contaminated water. After the outbreak began, rumors pointed to U.N. troops from Nepal as the source. The Haiti National Public Health Laboratory collected stool samples from cholera patients when the outbreak started and sent them to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to analyze. What the CDC found is that a single strain likely caused the outbreak and was introduced into Haiti in one event.

A 2011 study done by a team of French and Haitian researchers created a database of cases. They found “significant clusters” of cholera outbreaks near Mirebalais next to a U.N. camp “with deficient sanitation.” They also found that cholera “more severely affected communes in the coastal plain along the Artibonite River downstream of Mirebalais.” Their findings “strongly suggest” that contamination of the Arbonite River and one of its tributaries located downstream from the UN military camp “triggered the epidemic.”

Something could have been done to prevent the cholera epidemic. A study released in January found that interventions “would have impacted the likelihood of the Haiti cholera epidemic.” Researchers concluded that screening, giving medications to prevent infection and vaccination are “all effective strategies to prevent cholera introduction during large-scale personnel deployments such as that precipitating the 2010 Haiti outbreak."

How much responsibility did the U.N. take for its role in the cholera epidemic? Not enough. Wrote Jonathan M. Katz of the New York Times: “[The acknowledgement] stopped short of saying that the United Nations specifically caused the epidemic ... nor does it indicate a change in the organization’s legal position that it is absolutely immune from legal actions, including a federal lawsuit brought in the United States on behalf of cholera victims seeking billions in damages stemming from the Haiti crisis.”

In 2013, a federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of New York after prior claims against the U.N. demanding accountability for the epidemic were ignored. The claims demanded that the U.N. take steps to prevent another cholera epidemic by installing a national water and sanitation system in Haiti. Complainants also demanded the U.N. provide compensation to cholera victims for losses and issue a public apology. The U.N. maintains that it is immune from lawsuits, including the federal lawsuit.

A confidential report was sent to the Secretary General by U.N. adviser Philip Alston, the New York Times reported. The report states that the cholera epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.” Alston characterized the U.N.’s Haitian cholera policy as “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.”

The email sent by the Secretary General’s office stated that a “new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”

Hopefully that new response will begin to undo the damage caused by the cholera epidemic. The Haitian people have suffered enough.

Image credit: Flickr/CDC Global

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman

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