November 30, 2010

Haiti Cholera Outbreak Claims Over 1,600 Lives

A leading French epidemiologist said Monday that the strain of cholera that triggered an epidemic has claimed over 1,600 lives in Haiti and it must have been brought in from abroad.

Many Haitians believe the deadly outbreak was caused by poor sanitation at a camp for U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal.  The U.N. force said that there is no proof of this taking place.

Professor Renaud Piarroux, a cholera specialist, told AFP that the epidemic could cause 200,000 people to become ill.

"It started in the center of the country, not by the sea, nor in the refugee camps. The epidemic can't be of local origin. That's to say, it was imported," he told AFP, without directly pointing to the Nepalese camp.

Haiti also faced a massive earthquake in January that killed a quarter of a million people and left 1.3 million living in ramshackle refugee camps.

Haiti struggled to hold credible elections amid the chaos left by the two disasters, and violent protests have pinned rival factions against each other or against U.N. peacekeepers.

Haitian officials say that the first cases of cholera broke out on the banks of the Artibonite river, which is located downstream of a Nepalese U.N. base in Mirebalais.

Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission in Haiti, said last week that no U.N. soldier, police or civilian official had tested positive for cholera.  He went on to defend the Nepalese, who were the targets of protests.

Mulet said that all samples taken from the latrines, kitchens and water supply at the suspect Nepalese camp have been negative.

"There is no scientific evidence that the camp at Mirebalais is the source of this epidemic," he said, complaining of "a lot of disinformation, a lot of rumors around this situation."

However, Piarroux told AFP that the outbreak was not linked to the earthquake devastation and could not have come from a Haitian environmental source.

"The epidemic exploded in an extremely violent way on October 19, with several thousand cases and several hundreds deaths after many people drank the water of the Artibonite delta," he said.

Piarroux said that the world had not seen cholera spread so quickly since an outbreak in Goma in 1994. 

"We've had more than 70,000 cases, and we could easily see them hit 200,000," he warned.  "But there won't be tens of thousands of deaths, nor a sudden spike."

Cholera is caused by bacteria spreading in contaminated water or food.  It can kill within a day through dehydration if it goes untreated.