Haiti: hurricane passes, cholera spreads

At least eight people died and two disappeared when Hurricane Tomas struck Haiti the night of Nov. 5 and the morning of Nov. 6. The worst damage was reported in Grand’Anse, Nippes and South departments, located on the long peninsula that makes up the southwestern part of the country, according to a preliminary report by the government on Nov. 6. Homes and camps were flooded in Port-au-Prince, where more than 1 million people still live in improvised shelters 10 months after a Jan. 12 earthquake devastated the capital, but the rains there weren’t as heavy as had been feared. (Radio Métropole, Haiti, Nov. 6; Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Nov. 6)

Meanwhile, the cholera epidemic that broke out in mid-October continues, and health experts are afraid that the flooding from Tomas may help it spread, especially in the capital. The Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) reported on Nov. 4 that 501 people had died and 7,359 had been hospitalized since the start of the epidemic, with the highest number of deaths in the lower Artibonite River region. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Nov. 6)

On Nov. 4 a Haitian nonprofit group, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), called for an investigation into allegations that Nepalese troops from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were the source of the epidemic. The group pointed to longstanding problems with the MINUSTAH base at Mirebalais in the Central Plateau, where the infection seems to have started. According to RNDDH, the base was responsible for the collapse of the Latèm bridge in September 2008: containers from the base washed downstream during a tropical storm and caused the bridge to fall. MINUSTAH is a 13,000-member military-police mission that has occupied Haiti since June 2004. (AlterPresse, Nov. 4)

Officials from the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have insisted that investigating the cause of the outbreak would be a distraction from fighting the spread of the disease. But cholera expert John Mekalanos, who chairs Harvard University’s microbiology department, told the Associated Press wire service on Nov. 3 that he considered the official claims “an attempt to maybe do the politically right thing and leave some agencies a way out of this embarrassment.”

Melakonos said the evidence suggests that the Nepalese soldiers did in fact bring the novel and virulent strain of the cholera bacterium now present in Haiti. “The organism that is causing the disease is very uncharacteristic of [Haiti and the Caribbean],” he said, “and is quite characteristic of the region from where the soldiers in the base came.” He also cast doubt on the validity of UN tests of water near the base, saying that false negatives were common in this type of test.

At least one UN official disagreed with the UN’s position that there’s no need for further investigation. “That sounds like politics to me, not science,” Dr. Paul Farmer, the UN deputy special envoy to Haiti, told the AP. But Farmer, who is also a co-founder of the widely respected Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health clinics in Haiti, called for investigating the outbreak’s causes “without pointing fingers.” (Washington Post, Nov. 3, from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 7.

See our last post on Haiti.