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UN peacekeepers or climate change? The complex factors contributing to Haiti’s cholera crisis

UNITED NATIONS, UNEARTH News–During the July 26 noon press briefing at United Nations headquarters in New York, Deputy Spokesperson Eduardo del Buey asserted that the “Secretary-General and the UN remain fully committed to address the situation of cholera in Haiti.” Describing the on the ground efforts of relief workers, del Buey continued, “Significant progress has been made, mortality rates are down…and we are working with the Haitian authorities to educate the people on how to avoid the spread of cholera.”

Yet, a recent study based on DNA sequencing of the cholera bacteria published by former UN scientists suggests that the root cause of the outbreak, which has killed over 7,000 Haitians and sickened 620,000 more since October 2010, may have been UN peacekeepers themselves.

A girl infected with cholera holds her IV needle at the hospital in Dessalines, Haiti. Photo credit:

A girl infected with cholera holds her IV needle at the hospital in Dessalines, Haiti. Photo credit: UN Photo

Brian Concannon, Director of Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) told UNEARTH News that he has no doubt that DNA research linking Nepali UN workers to the strain of cholera causing the outbreaks proved that the peacemakers were the primary cause of the epidemic.

“An uncontested mountain of evidence points conclusively to the UN as the source of Haiti’s cholera,” Concannon said. “It was a dirty river, but the river became dirty because the UN base was discharging human wastes into it.”

Pointing to scientific-based studies, including one issued by the UN’s own Panel of Independent Experts, Concannon emphasized he has strong evidence to back-up his current lawsuit against the United Nations on behalf of the Haitian people.

“The UN troops’ responsibility has been established by DNA evidence, microbiological evidence, and public health research,” Concannon noted.

The UN has yet to comment on an exact nature of the Haiti outbreak, instead claiming the outbreak was, according to their own study, a result of “confluence of circumstances” including environmental issues and devastation in the months following the deadly quake.  They have also denied any legal culpability.

Yet, while the case against the peacekeepers may seem incontrovertible, a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene suggests that the fact that the peacekeepers dumped sewage into the river may not be only responsible factor in the outbreak that is continuing to sicken Haitians and cost children’s lives.

According to Rita Colwell, co-author of the study and former director of the National Science Foundation, Haiti had not experienced a significant cholera outbreak for 50 years until 10 months after the earthquake when the current epidemic began.

After the devastating quake however, seasonal conditions and the warming waters provided the perfect conditions for cholera bacteria to flourish, allowing the cholera introduced by the Nepali UN workers to thrive.

In an e-mail to UNEARTH News, Colwell insisted that assigning blame solely to the peacekeepers gives an incomplete picture of the complex causes and environmental factors that led to cholera’s spread in Haiti.

“A simple calculation reveals that dumping raw wastes into waterways will not affect the river water,” Colwell wrote. “An average person produces 5lb/day as waste and assuming 100 peacekeepers initially in the Mirebalies region, would imply that they will produce 500lb/day as waste.”

Children viewing cholera prevention poster in Haiti clinic. Photo credit: Marky Turner

Children viewing cholera prevention poster in Haiti clinic. Photo credit: Marky Turner

“Assuming that they will dump it [the waste] entirely in the river means that they were essentially blocking the course of the river over the next few days (it should be noted that the Artibonite river is not a fast flowing river),” Colwell further explained.  “Secondly, dumping garbage does not necessarily answer the cholera-question, why was there no cholera during the 2008 Pakistan floods if all it takes is to dump Vibrio cholerae bacteria into the water?”

Pointing to the increasing numbers of cholera outbreaks worldwide demonstrated in her research, she noted a “change in the pattern of the disease apparently linked to the enhanced variability of the water cycle.”

The July report blaming UN peacekeepers, according to Colwell, also fails to acknowledge how environmental factors may have impacted the outbreak. “The studies from the UN did not look for any environmental connections – particularly hydroclimatic factors and local water infrastructure – to cholera and ignored the fact that cholera bacteria have tendency to grow in variety of suitable environments,” Colwell told UNEARTH News.

“Climate change and cholera have a complicated link,” Colwell concluded.  “As far as Haiti is concerned, the disease outbreak was triggered by a complicated set of factors. The precipitation and temperatures were above average during 2010 and that, in conjunction with a destroyed water and sanitation infrastructure, can be considered to have contributed to this major disease outbreak.”

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