Haiti: did UN troops “import” the cholera?

Hundreds of protesters marched on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) military base at the city of Mirebalais in Haiti’s Central Plateau on Oct. 29, charging that the Nepalese troops stationed there had caused a major outbreak of cholera. At least 330 people had died and 4,714 people had been hospitalized because of the disease as of Oct. 28, just eight days after the first cases were reported, mostly in Mirebalais and in the Lower Artibonite River region in the west. “Down with MINUSTAH, down with imported cholera,” chanted the protesters, largely students and other youths.

Mirebalais mayor Laguerre Lochard, who is running for the Senate in general elections on Nov. 28, had made the accusation a few days earlier. According to Lochard, human wastes from the base were spilling into the Meille River, which flows into the Artibonite River. Experts suspect that the vibrio cholerae, the cholera bacterium, spread as people used water from the Artibonite; the cholera cases are mostly downstream from the point where the Meille flows into the larger river.

The United Nations quickly denied the charge, claiming that the base’s wastes are properly managed through septic tanks that are emptied every week. MINUSTAH spokesperson Vincenzo Pugliese said on Oct. 28 samples collected from the base on Oct. 22 tested negative for cholera and that none of the Nepalese troops had the disease.

But Associated Press reporters found evidence on Oct. 28 that the septic tanks were overflowing and that human waste could run to the Meille either from the overflow or from the nearby landfill where matter from the tanks is buried. There were “visible signs where water has flowed [from the landfill] during recent heavy rains,” AP reported. On Oct. 29 Pugliese admitted to AP that the Nepalese troops had not in fact been tested for cholera since the outbreak. “By none of them presenting the symptom of the cholera there was no need to do another test,” he said.

Cholera is not common in the Western Hemisphere, and Haiti had not reported a case since it started keeping records in the middle of the last century. The disease is endemic to Nepal, which had an outbreak over the summer; the Nepalese troops started arriving in shifts for a six-month rotation on Oct. 9, a little more than a week before the first cases were reported. About 75% of people infected with cholera don’t show symptoms, but they can spread the disease for about two weeks, according to an Oct. 25 press briefing by Pan American Health Organization deputy director Jon Andrus.

Scientists from US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were studying samples to see if they could determine the origin of the strain, but CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner said they might not be able to pinpoint the nation it came from. (AP, Oct. 28, via The Star, Malaysia, Oct. 29, via Kansas City Star; Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Oct. 29; Al Jazeera English, Oct. 30)

The Oct. 29 march in Mirebalais was the latest and largest of a series of protests against MINUSTAH, a 13,000-member military-police mission that has occupied Haiti since June 2004. MINUSTAH troops and Haitian police broke up a demonstration at a base in Port-au-Prince on Oct. 15, a day after the United Nations Security Council renewed the mission’s mandate for another year. There was also a protest at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the capital on Oct. 14, along with a protest in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, according to an Oct. 20 report from the labor organizing group Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”). In the towns of Plaisance and Limonade, also in the north, campesino demonstrators combined the protest against the occupation with denunciations of the Monsanto Company, a US-based biotechnology multinational which offered Haitian farmers hybrid seeds after an earthquake struck southern Haiti on Jan. 12.

Activists in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, México and Puerto Rico held solidarity protests on Oct. 15 calling for an end to MINUSTAH and cancellation of Haiti’s foreign debt. MINUSTAH is led by Brazilian military commanders. (Adital, Brazil, Oct. 25)

Update, Nov. 1: The CDC has now reported that the cholera strain in Haiti matches one commonly found in South Asia, which includes Nepal. (New York Times, Nov. 1, from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 31.

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