Healthcare in the Caribbean

Op-Ed: Cholera in Haiti

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - August 20, 2012

By Irwin Stotzky
Op-Ed Contributor

The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, more than nineteen months ago, left a huge trail of destruction.  Approximately 350,000 people died, 500,000 were injured, almost half of them children, an estimated two million people were left homeless in Port-au-Prince alone, and hundreds of thousands left the city seeking shelter with family in the countryside.

The earthquake was a catastrophic magnitude-7.3 earthquake.  Its epicentre was near the town of Leogane, approximately 17 kilometers (10.56 miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince.  An estimated three million people were adversely affected by the quake.

Approximately 30,000 commercial buildings, 208,000 residences, 1,300 educational institutions, and more than 50 hospitals and health centers collapsed or were seriously damaged.

The earthquake damaged or destroyed many notable landmark buildings, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly Building, the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, and the National Penitentiary.

All of these horrendous facts have received substantial international attention.  But another tragedy, both its causes and its consequences, has been almost hidden from public view — the cholera epidemic.

The outbreak of this epidemic began in October 2010, 10 months after Haiti’s tragic earthquake.  According to the Pan- American Health Organization, it “has become one of the largest cholera epidemics in modern history.”

As of July 2012, at least 7,200 Haitians have died from the disease and more than 530,000 people have been infected.  And this does not count the thousands who have died from the disease in the rural areas and whose deaths have not been officially reported.

The cholera epidemic exploded in Haiti shortly after a new battalion of United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, arrived in Haiti.  Indeed, before the arrival of these peacekeepers, Haiti had not had a cholera outbreak in more than two centuries.

It had not reported a single case of cholera for more than 50 years.  The United Nations did not test or treat these troops for cholera prior to sending them to Haiti, despite the knowledge that Nepal was experiencing a surge in infections at that time, and that Haiti was especially vulnerable to such an epidemic.

The evidence that the Nepalese troops caused the cholera outbreak is well documented and overwhelming.

Many studies, including those of the United Nations itself, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Harvard Cholera Group, and Dr Renaud Piarroux, one of the world’s leading cholera epidemiologists, whose report the Haitian and French governments commissioned, have documented that the Vibrio cholerae virus was introduced to Haitian waters by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) personnel deployed in Haiti from Nepal.

These troops were stationed on a base in rural Mirebalais.  That base maintained inadequate and dangerous sanitation conditions, allowing contaminated human waste to run into the Meille River, a tributary of the Artibonite River, Haiti’s primary water source.

Thousands of Haitians rely on the Artibonite River for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, and irrigation.  People in the area also reported foul stenches coming from the camp.  A United Nations investigation revealed that all of the base waste was dumped into an open-air unfenced pit and that sewage piping at the base was “haphazard” and “inadequate.”

Adding to these clear acts of negligence and malfeasance, the United Nations failed to take immediate action to address the outbreak of the epidemic, delayed an investigation into the causes of the epidemic, and seemed to intentionally obscure the outbreaks source, thus causing needless suffering for the Haitian people.

It is time for the United Nations to take responsibility for its reckless actions.  This means that the United Nations must live up to its responsibilities to promote human rights around the world.

The victims must be allowed a fair and impartial hearing, monetary compensation for their losses, and the United Nations must make a commitment to prevent the further spread of cholera in Haiti.

The United Nations, in partnership with the government of Haiti, must fund and establish a broad-based sanitation, potable water and medical treatment program to ensure that the Haitian people are protected from these types of epidemics.  It can do no less and still live up to the noble ideals it claims to promote.

Irwin Stotzky, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, has served as the attorney and advisor to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and as an advisor to former Haitian President Rene Preval. Stotzky organized and directed the investigations into the massive human rights violations committed in Haiti from 1991-1994, and has represented Haitian and other refugees on constitutional issues including in the United States Supreme Court.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.

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