UN base focus of Haiti cholera epidemic

UN investigators have taken samples of foul-smelling waste trickling behind a Nepalese peacekeeping base in Haiti towards an infected river system.

This follows accusations that excrement from the unit caused a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 300 people and made more than 4000 sick.

Mission spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese confirmed yesterday that the military team was testing for cholera – the first public acknowledgment that the 12,000-member force was directly investigating allegations its base played a role in the outbreak.

The epidemic continued to spread around the country – which was devastated by an earthquake in January – with cases confirmed in two new departments in Haiti’s north and northeast, said UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Imogen Wall. At least 303 people have died and 4722 have been admitted to hospital.

The World Health Organisation warned that the outbreak was far from over and Haiti should prepare for the disease to hit the capital, Port-au-Prince, which has been teeming with squalid tent cities since the earthquake.

“We cannot say it is contained,” WHO’s cholera chief, Claire-Lise Chaignat, said in Geneva. “I think we haven’t reached the peak,” she added, recommending that authorities prepare for the “worst-case scenario” – cholera in the capital.

International aid workers and the UN were focusing their efforts on stemming the spread of the outbreak, which was first noted on October 20. But Haitians are increasingly turning their attention to its origins: how did a disease that has not been seen in Haiti since early last century suddenly erupt in the countryside?

The mission strongly denies its base was a cause of the infection. Mr Pugliese said civilian engineers collected samples from the base last Friday, which tested negative for cholera, and the mission’s military force commander had ordered the additional tests. He said no members of the Nepalese battalion, whose members arrived this month for a six-month rotation, have the disease.

Local politicians, including a powerful senator and the mayor of Mirebalais, are pointing the finger at the Nepalese peacekeeping base, which is perched above a source of the Meille River, a tributary to the Artibonite River on Haiti’s central plateau.

The Artibonite River has been the source of most infections, which remain concentrated in the rural area surrounding it – mostly downriver from the mouth of the Meille.

“They are located exactly where the sickness started,” said Mirebalais Mayor Laguerre Lochard.

Cholera is pandemic in much of the world but almost unheard of in the western hemisphere. It is endemic to Nepal. A recent article in the Japanese Journal of Infectious Diseases about outbreaks in 2008-09 said the strain found by researchers was Vibrio cholerae 01 Ogawa biotype El Tor. – the same strain identified in Haiti.

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