Haiti unrest hampers desperate fight against cholera

PORT-AU-PRINCE Wed Nov 17, 2010 3:32pm EST

A cholera victim awaits treatment inside a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Port-au-Prince November 15 , 2010. REUTERS/St-Felix Evens

A cholera victim awaits treatment inside a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Port-au-Prince November 15 , 2010.

Credit: Reuters/St-Felix Evens

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Anti-U.N. riots in the Haitian city of Cap-Haitien have disrupted international efforts to tackle a spreading cholera epidemic, increasing the risk of infection and death for tens of thousands of poor Haitians in the north, aid workers said on Wednesday.

The situation in Haiti's main northern city remained tense on Wednesday following two days of unrest, in which protesters angry over the unchecked epidemic attacked U.N. peacekeepers and set up burning barricades of tires, U.N. officials said.

Most of Cap-Haitien's main avenues were still blocked and the airport was closed. The U.N. mission in Haiti said it received a local police report of about 200 protesters stoning a hospital outside Cap-Haitien and "foreign doctors" at the site. No additional details were immediately available.

The cholera epidemic, which has killed 1,110 people and sickened 18,382 as of Monday, has piled misery on the Caribbean country as it struggles to recover from a massive January earthquake and prepares for crucial elections on November 28.

The violence in Cap-Haitien, in which some armed protesters fired on U.N. troops and two demonstrators were killed, prevented cholera patients from reaching hospitals and halted distribution of medicines. Dozens of people were injured.

Protesters blamed U.N. Nepalese peacekeepers for bringing the cholera to Haiti, a charge denied by the U.N. mission.

Local media reported bodies of cholera victims -- a major infection threat -- being left in the streets of the city of close to 1 million, where aid agencies are battling to contain the fiercest spike of the month-old Haitian cholera epidemic.

"We have to get aid to these people right away and this unrest is delaying that," Julie Schindall, spokeswoman for the international charity Oxfam, told Reuters. She said vital time was being lost to combat a fast-acting diarrheal disease where hours can mean the difference between life and death.

"Every day we lose means hospitals go without supplies, patients go untreated and people remain ignorant of the danger they are facing," the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, Nigel Fisher, said in a statement.

Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food, but if caught early can be easily treated by oral rehydration fluids. If not treated, it can kill in hours.

The riots, in which Nepalese peacekeepers in the central city of Hinche were also pelted with rocks, have raised tensions ahead of the elections in the Western Hemisphere' poorest state.

But the Haitian government has not moved to postpone the polls and the United Nations, which has a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in Haiti, says logistical, technical and security conditions are in place for the polls to go ahead.

PRESIDENT APPEALS FOR CALM

President Rene Preval appealed for calm. "Neither burning tires, nor throwing stones or bottles, nor shooting can kill the cholera germ," he said in speech late on Tuesday.

U.N. officials blame the Haitian riots on criminals and political agitators they say are seeking to disrupt the elections, which will choose a successor to Preval, a 99-member parliament and 11 members of the 30-seat Senate.

Haiti's cholera epidemic has triggered a regional health alert. Florida authorities on Wednesday reported one laboratory-confirmed case of cholera -- a resident who had visited family in Haiti -- but officials say good sanitary conditions mean the risk of a U.S. outbreak is minimal.

Dominican Republic, Haiti's eastern neighbor on Hispaniola island, tightened border health controls after reporting one cholera case, a Haitian construction worker who had returned from a holiday in his homeland. Hiring of Haitian migrant workers was also temporarily suspended.

Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, crowded with 1.5 million homeless earthquake survivors, remained calm and relatively lightly affected by the cholera. But Cap-Haitien and the Nord department have the highest cholera fatality rate in Haiti.

The outbreak's epicenter is located in the central Artibonite region.

Imogen Wall of U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said the unrest forced the U.N. to cancel flights carrying soap, medical supplies and personnel to Cap-Haitien and Port-de-Paix.

During the riots, a World Food Programme warehouse in Cap-Haitien was looted of 500 tonnes of food and burned.

One of the biggest humanitarian operations in the world was struggling to control the cholera epidemic in Haiti, a country that lost more than 250,000 people in the January earthquake.

"An easily treatable and preventable disease continues to claim lives," said medical charity Doctors Without Borders, warning of "acute deficiencies" in Haiti's anti-cholera fight.

"Critical preventative activities such as distribution of clean drinking water, positioning of oral rehydration points in affected communities, waste removal and safe burial of victims ... all remain far below the needs," the group said.

(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Tom Brown in Miami, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Stacey Joyce)