Saturday 20 January 2018

UN rejects accusations peacekeepers spread disease

Damien McElroy

Accusations that Nepalese peacekeepers introduced the cholera epidemic to Haiti have been rejected by the UN.

The organisation said that reports that septic tanks on a base for Nepalese peacekeepers in Cap-Haitien leaked into a tributary of the Artibonite River, used by locals for drinking and bathing, were rumours. A spokesman said several sets of tests on the river had proven negative.

"Frankly from a humanitarian point of view it doesn't matter," said Imogen Wall, from the United Nations humanitarian office in Haiti. "Cholera is not the kind of epidemic where you need to know the source. We've encountered no problem with trust. "

Widespread rioting has swept Cap-Haitien in response to the outbreak, which has killed more than 1,000 people. The UN has said the riots have been instigated by political factions in the run-up to a presidential election.

Rene Preval, Haiti's president, called for calm after two people were killed in the riots.

"Disorder and instability have never brought solutions to a country going through hard times," he said. "You must be even more watchful of those who exploit the country's misfortunes for their own benefit. Gunshots, throwing bottles, barricades of burning tires will not help us eradicate cholera bacteria. On the contrary, it will prevent the sick from receiving care and to deliver medicine where it is needed."

Thousands of protesters went on the rampage, setting a police station ablaze and threatening to torch a UN compound before being broken up by gunfire and tear gas.

As the barricades burned, the disease continued spreading across Haiti and potentially the island of Hispaniola.

The cholera outbreak that began last month has brought increased misery to the entire country, still struggling with the aftermath of last January's earthquake. Anger has been particularly acute in the north, where the infection is newer, health care sparse and people have died at more than twice the rate of the region where the epidemic was first noticed.

While the ministry of health says more than 16,700 people have been admitted to hospital nationwide, Medecins Sans Frontieres reports that its clinics alone have treated at least 16,500.

On Tuesday, during a second day of rioting throughout northern Haiti, local reporters said a police station was burned in Cap-Haitien and rocks thrown at peacekeeping bases.

The UN cancelled flights carrying soap, medical supplies and personnel to Cap-Haitien and Port-de-Paix because of the violence.

Oxfam suspended water chlorination projects and the World Health Organization halted training of medical staff, the U.N. humanitarian office added in its news release.

The violence has combined some Haitians' long-standing resentment of the 12,000-member UN military mission with the internationally shared suspicion that the base could have been a source of the infection.

Health experts have called for an independent investigation into whether Nepalese peacekeepers introduced the South Asian strain of cholera to Haiti, where no case of cholera had ever been documented before late October.

Cholera is transmitted by faeces and can be all but prevented if people have access to safe drinking water and regularly wash their hands.

But sanitary conditions do not exist in much of Haiti, and the disease has spread across the countryside and to nearly all the country's major population centres, including the capital, Port-au-Prince.

There are concerns it could eventually sicken hundreds of thousands of people.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic reported their country's first confirmed case of cholera in Higuey, near the tourist mecca of Punta Cana.

The man was a Haitian citizen who had recently returned from a 12-day vacation in neighbouring Haiti. The news alarmed Dominicans, but the spread of the disease is easily prevented with good hygiene and sanitation, and no locally originated cholera cases have been reported.

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