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Fears UN caused cholera outbreak in rural Haiti

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Nov 13, 2010 - 9:03:42 AM

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UNITED NATIONS - “We are obviously focused on stopping the spread of cholera, not looking to point fingers,” said Nicholas Reader, deputy spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) during an interview with The Final Call from his office in New York City.

Mr. Reader was responding to accusations from some that the disease, which is caused by contaminated water and causes diarrhea, dehydration and can be fatal, was being spread by the Nepalese contingent attached to the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti known as MINUSTAH.

“We take these reports very seriously; and all 711 members of the Nepalese contingent have been tested, and none of them tested positive for cholera,” Mr. Reader said. “But a second round of tests will be run, because the rumors continue.”

Haitian American lawyer and activist Ezili Danto is among those who have questioned where there outbreak came from and whether there is a UN connection. “UN's leaking, foul waste and unsecure septic tanks in Mirebalais is said by Haiti mayor to be the possible source of the Haiti cholera outbreak. Haiti residents in the Mirebalais, Artibonite and Central Plateau regions of the cholera outbreak are demanding an independent non-UN investigation of the case,” she wrote on her “Ezili Notes” website.

“Haitians have been bathing and drinking from the Artibonite river water for two centuries and have never before, in remembered history, gotten cholera. Suddenly they are getting sick from, according to the UN and WHO, drinking or eating food soaked or cooked from contaminated Artibonite river water. What's new to Haiti that's caused this?” she asked.

“The natural assumption would be the unprecedented earthquake devastation. But the cholera outbreak is not coming from the Southern earthquake areas where sanitary conditions are compellingly worse than ever before in Haiti. So, what's that new element, additional toxin and where did it come from? According to the people in the rural regions where the outbreak started its the oozing foul feces waste from the Nepalese UN base in Mirebalais that's on the ground flowing across a path and into the Meile river that feeds the Artibonite river,” said Ms. Danto.

But, she added, on Oct. 26 “without providing any scientific proof, pathology tests or details showing there's no cholera infection amongst their UN soldiers coming from cholera-vulnerable countries, the UN Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH) denied that its Nepalese soldiers are the source of the ongoing outbreak of cholera in rural Haiti.”

Reporters were initially suspicious because the United Nations did not admit that there was a cholera epidemic until Oct. 21, when the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization finally confirmed 1,500 cases and 138 deaths. On Oct. 28, UNOCHA said there were 4,722 hospitalizations and 303 deaths at Final Call press time. Observers say confirmation of the death toll came only after outside calls for a UN investigation into a suspected sewage spill into a Haitian river system that flows from the camp housing Nepalese soldiers.

The Pan-American Health Organization has said it will not speculate and is awaiting definitive evidence. Mr. Reader told The Final Call that Haiti had not seen cholera in 40 years.

Mr. Reader was asked by The Final Call the same question raised at the daily UN press briefings, with $15 billion pledged for aid to Haiti, how did the cholera outbreak ever happen? “UNOCHA, within 72 hours after the earthquake launched a humanitarian appeal that runs from Jan. 2010 until Jan. 2011; and to date we have raised 70 percent of our stated goal ($1.4 billion), which we use for life saving projects such as the present cholera epidemic,” explained Mr. Reader.

The money pledged by the international community reporters keep asking about is for the long-term development projects, not for humanitarian aid projects, Mr. Reader insisted.

Ms. Danto told The Final Call that Haitians need help. “I do not believe UNOCHA when they say that Haiti had a cholera epidemic 40 years ago, particularly since the Haitian ministry of health is saying just the opposite, Ms. Danto said.

UNOCHO provided The Final Call with a list of things it said the agency is doing to help the Haitian people fight against the cholera scourge. The UNOCHO list included plans to build 12 cholera treatment centers for effective isolation and treatment of cases; trucking tens of thousands of liters of water to the affected areas; delivering food (Meals Ready To Eat rations) to affected medical areas; airlifting water purification resources to all affected areas; providing medical staff to facilities in Artibonite; and ramping up preparations in Port au Prince.

Ms. Danto posted on her website video testimony from Haitians that accused the Red Cross of delivering “filthy water.” Ms. Danto, who is based in Connecticut, noted that a Haitian mother testified that a water drum with Red Cross written on it “is not treated.” The woman said she was suffering from a stomach ache “from drinking Red Cross polluted water,” according to Ms. Danto's website.

“The cholera outbreak need not have happened; shows the failure of the international relief effort,” wrote Ms. Danto.

A University of Florida microbiologist has been quoted as saying it was only a matter of time before Haiti would experience a massive wave of cholera because the rivers and canals many Haitians use for drinking water were visibly filthy.

There are nearly 14,000 non-governmental organizations and relief organizations currently operating in Haiti.

A Haitian official has said that Haitians not directly affected by the earthquake, living outside of the capital, are suddenly getting ill because they are facing a shortage of clean drinking water.