No new evidence, but UN again blamed for Haiti cholera

UN Peacekeeper, Haiti
UN Peacekeeper, Haiti
UN

Haiti is in crisis, in the middle of a muddled election for the next president of this devastated nation, and the media are doing their own muddling regarding the source of its ongoing cholera outbreak.

The epidemic has so far killed more than 2,100, sickened maybe 100,000 and is expected to continue spreading for months.

A Nepalese UN peacekeeping team was accused of bringing cholera with them and spreading it due to improper sanitation. This caused attacks on the UN peacekeepers, rioting and some deaths. Testing of the bacteria by the CDC identified it as a South Asian strain and many concluded the UN team were indeed the culprits.

But some top cholera experts, in fact, believe the outbreak is too big and widespread to have come from a single point source. I posted on this alternative view earlier and talked with one of the scientists, Rita Colwell, former head of the National Science Foundation. Colwell says of the idea that UN troops caused this:

“It’s almost certainly incorrect…. The pattern of distribution and rapid spread across a large area indicates it was already present.”

The UN says the Nepalese troops have tested negative for cholera as have their latrines and water supplies in the suspect camp. But these facts and this alternative view have not gotten much attention.

Meanwhile, the UN blame game has re-emerged.

The Washington Post today has the headline “UN Peacekeepers called likely source of cholera.” This is based on the assessment of a French scientist, Renaud Piarroux, who didn’t actually identify the source as the UN but said “no other hypothesis could be found.” At the very bottom of the story, it says:

Piarroux could not prove that there was cholera inside the base or among the soldiers. But he also hinted strongly at a coverup.

The Times of India and the BBC were even more certain, with the BBC saying “Haiti cholera: UN peacekeepers to blame” and the Times of India also concluding “UN Troops brought cholera to Haiti.” The Times reports:

There is no other way to explain the rapid emergence and strength of the cholera outbreak in a small town with just a few dozen inhabitants, Piarroux and his team concluded.

A few other media were less conclusive, such as CNN International reporting that the “French report about origin of cholera inconclusive.” The CNN report quotes a CDC expert, Eric Mintz:
“To date, I am aware of no evidence whatsoever that would suggest the strain in Haiti is unique to Nepal….  Vibrio cholerae strains do not get their passports stamped when they cross an international border, and there are many strains in circulation around the globe at any given time.”

Mintz said researchers around the world (including Colwell’s lab and the CDC) are still studying the evidence in an effort to determine the source of the outbreak. He suggested nobody draw any conclusions yet.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.