Haiti: NGO petitions UN on cholera as vaccine controversy heats up

Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokesperson for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), acknowledged in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 11 that the mission had received a petition for relief filed on behalf of hundreds of thousands of cholera victims. Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that the cholera epidemic that struck Haiti in October 2010 was caused by poor sanitation at a base operated by MINISTAH, a 10,000-member international military and police operation which has occupied the country since June 2004. Almost 500,000 Haitians have contracted the disease over the past year, and some 6,500 have died from it. MINUSTAH and the United Nations (UN) have refused to accept responsibility for the epidemic. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Nov. 11)

The petition was filed on Nov. 3 by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and its Haitian affiliate, the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI). At a press conference in New York on Nov. 8, IJDH director Brian Concannon said the hope was that MINUSTAH would issue a public apology, set up a tribunal for evaluating the victims’ claims and fund a program to provide sanitation, potable water and medical treatment. Haitian grassroots organizations have made similar demands in the past.

It isn’t clear whether any legal mechanisms exist that could compel MINUSTAH to compensate the victims. The occupation force is covered by a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the Haitian government and the UN. The agreement requires MINUSTAH to set up a standing commission to handle claims, but after seven years in Haiti the force has still not created the commission. At the New York press conference Concannon said the petitioners will press their claims in a Haitian court if MINUSTAH fails to act on the petition, but he suggested that the real goal was to appeal to international public opinion. “We’re hoping that this is the case that’s too big to fail,” he said. (Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch Nov. 8)

Meanwhile, the Haitian government and Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health, a Boston-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that runs a network of clinics in Haiti, are planning a pilot program to vaccinate 100,000 people against cholera starting in January. Dr. Paul Farmer, a US medical doctor and a Partners in Health co-founder, announced the $870,000 program at an Oct. 19 press conference in Miami, saying that vaccination was now necessary because medical NGOs were withdrawing from Haiti. The vaccine, Shanchol, is produced by the Paris-based multinational Sanofi SA (formerly Sanofi-Aventis).

[Farmer also serves as the UN deputy special envoy to Haiti, assisting former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001), while at the same time sitting on the board of directors of the IJDH, the group that filed the petition against MINUSTAH.]

Other medical experts question the value of vaccinations in fighting the water-borne epidemic when Haiti needs funding to build permanent infrastructure to make clean water available to the population. One problem with the vaccine is that has to be administered in two doses two weeks apart, a difficult procedure in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced because of a January 2010 earthquake. The French-based group Doctors Without Border (known by its French intitials, MSF) calculates that vaccinating the entire population of 9.5 million would cost $40 million; MSF says the vaccine’s protection starts to diminish after three years. (Reuters, Oct. 19; Radio Métropole, Haiti, Nov. 10)

On Nov. 8 the New York Times noted that Cuban doctors in Haiti have had “a lead role” in fighting the epidemic. A Cuban clinic in Mirebalais in the Central Plateau was the first to report the outbreak, and since then the Cuban medical teams have treated 76,000 of the country’s nearly half million cases, with 272 fatalities—a mortality rate of just 0.36%. The average for the country is 1.4%, more than three times the rate at the Cuban clinics. (NYT, Nov. 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 15.

See our last post on Haiti.