Cholera Outbreak in Haiti: The UN Responds

cholera in HaitiUnited Nations Secretary, General Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Hispaniola this past week, with renewed promises to the Haitian people burdened with an ongoing cholera epidemic. During his stay, the Secretary-General called for increased commitment to the $2.2 billion plan he first proposed at the end of 2012 — to help fight the cholera outbreak in Haiti, a plan for which donors have been scarce.

He also introduced the “Total Sanitation Campaign” that will attempt to lessen the impact of future cholera outbreaks in Haiti by addressing the absence of proper sanitation in rural areas. “As secretary-general of the United Nations, I want to assure you that the United Nations and its partners are strongly committed to ending the epidemic as quickly as possible,” said the Secretary-General.

Before the current epidemic, which has killed over 8,500 and infected 700,000 since 2010, Haitians had not seen a recorded case of bacterial infection within their borders for a century. Evidence suggests that U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal first brought the disease to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake that affected 3 million in the area.

Despite its claim of legal immunity, the UN must now defend itself against three lawsuits brought forth on behalf of the victims. Critics denounced the Secretary-General’s visit, stating that the UN must accept legal responsibility for the outbreak and compensate the Haitian people.

Cholera quickly spread throughout Haiti due to inadequate sewage systems and polluted water sources. While extreme poverty fell by seven percent from 2000 to 2012 nationally, poverty rates remained largely the same in rural areas where half of all households lack adequate sanitation and where more than half of the total population resides.

Of the rural population, 40 percent uses unprotected water sources, which lead to increased risk of contracting cholera. The economic gap between rural and urban populations in Haiti has grown, with 70 percent of rural households classified as chronically poor compared to those of urban areas at 20 percent.

The World Health Organization defines cholera as “an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.” Symptoms include watery diarrhea that if untreated, can dehydrate and kill a patient. Yet the 75 percent of those infected who do not develop symptoms, can still infect others. Those with low immunity to disease, such as malnourished children and people with HIV, have an increased likelihood of infection.

Almost all families displaced by the earthquake four and a half years ago have since left temporary camps — a sign of increased progress in a burdened nation. As families continue to reestablish normalcy, the UN’s campaign plans to initially aid three million citizens over the next five years. According to the Secretary-General, “Cholera rates are declining and the battle is slowly being won. We must, however, intensify these efforts. And we must focus on the wider quest to ensure access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.” For now, anxious Haitians await both new donors and and initiative from the U.N. to take legal responsibility.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: UN, World Bank, BBC, ABC News, WHO, CBS News
Photo: Unsplash