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Foul rumors spread amid Haitian cholera outbreak

November 26, 2010 - Mary Ann Heath
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March cholera was “extremely unlikely to occur in Haiti.” But now, more than 1,100 are dead and experts say the disease will claim many more and haunt Haiti for years.   So, what happened?

Rumors, or circumstantial evidence, depending how you look at it, are leading health experts and a United Nations representative in Haiti to investigate allegations the cholera outbreak may have been initiated by a U.N. peacekeeping base. According to an Associated Press story, farmers said they saw waste from the base flow into a river. In a matter of days of the farmers’ story, hundreds downstream died of cholera. 

Whether or not the base is the cause of the outbreak is not the crux of the issue. What is more important — and more destructive — is the damage the incident could have on the U.N. Add to that how the allegations were first handled amid the deadly outbreak claiming hundreds, many of them children.

The U.N. is supposed to be a “beacon of hope” to the world. According to its website, the international organization was formed following World War II by 51 countries “committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.” There are now 192 member states. 

Throughout the last week, anti-U.N. riots have consumed Haiti. The very people who are supposed to be helping the country in its time of need may very well have contaminated one of its rivers, sickened thousands and killed many. What is most disturbing about the story is how “rumors” about the cholera outbreak were handled by U.N. officials, who simply dismissed the notion. Apparently Haiti is quite the rumor mill, and nobody believed cholera would turn into the epidemic it has.

To me, these all seem like careless assumptions, and if the so-called rumors are true, so is the U.N. base camp in Haiti.

An AP story revealed the following details:

• The outbreak did not occur where it would have been most-suspected, a major port or earthquake tent camp. Rather, it cropped up along the rural Artibonite River.

• The base camp of 454 U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal lies on a waterway called the Boukan Kanni, part of the Meille River that feeds into the Artibonite. People nearby have complained about the stench coming from the base, as well as sewage in the river.

• The latest deployment from Nepal came in October, following a summer of cholera outbreaks. A changeover was done at the base Oct. 9, 12 and 16. While the U.N. maintains that none of the peacekeepers showed symptoms of the disease, 75 percent of those infected with cholera never show symptoms and can still pass the disease on for two weeks. 

• According to the CDC, this particular strain of cholera matches one most prevalently found in South Asia. 

Smells like a load of crap, doesn’t it? 

Apparently, when AP reporters visited the base camp on Oct. 27, they found an overflowing septic tank. Descriptions revealed that “the back of the base smelled like a toilet had exploded. Reeking, dark liquid flowed out of a broken pipe, toward the river, from next to what the soldiers said were latrines.” The U.N. agreed the black fluid was overflow from the base, but said it contained kitchen and shower waste, not excrement. 

If the U.N. did indeed spur a cholera outbreak in Haiti, it could be devastating to the organization. The U.N. has led five peacekeeping missions in Haiti since 1993. And they have done some very crucial things there. 

“The peacekeepers have saved lives in floods and defeated kidnapping gangs,” an AP reporter writes. But, not everything they’ve done has been good. 

“They have also killed people in protests and accidents and had an entire unit dismissed for paying for sex, many with underage Haitian girls,” the reporter continues. 

It is unfortunate that a vital organization like the U.N. — which is supposed to stand for peace, security and social progress — can tarnish the good it does. Perhaps it’s time the organization live up to its own standards and quit dumping on places like Haiti.


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