U.N. Haiti cholera panel avoids blaming peacekeepers

PORT-AU-PRINCE Thu May 5, 2011 12:18pm EDT

A dead body is transported from the cholera pavilion at a general hospital Port-au-Prince November 21, 2010. REUTERS/Kena Betancur

A dead body is transported from the cholera pavilion at a general hospital Port-au-Prince November 21, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Kena Betancur

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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Experts charged by the United Nations with probing the cause of a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti pointed on Wednesday to fecal contamination by a riverside U.N. peacekeepers' camp as a likely cause, but a U.N. spokesman said that could not be seen as conclusive.

The four-member U.N.-appointed panel, named by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in January, carefully avoided apportioning any direct blame or responsibility to U.N. peacekeepers, citing "a confluence of circumstances" behind the epidemic.

The four experts from Latin America, the United States and India had been asked to investigate the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 4,800 people since October, although the death rate has slowed considerably.

The panel was set up following accusations by Haitians that Nepalese soldiers serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, were the source of cholera, through leakage from latrines at their camp at Mirebalais in central Haiti.

A widespread belief in Haiti that the disease came from the peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, sparked some anti-U.N. riots last year in the poor Caribbean nation.

A French scientist brought in by the Haitian government also backed this theory in a study he made on the cholera emergency that started 10 months after Haiti's devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.

In its report published Wednesday, the U.N.-appointed panel said the outbreak was caused by "bacteria introduced into Haiti as a result of human activity; more specifically by the contamination of the Meye Tributary System of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of the current South Asian type Vibrio cholerae."

Declaring this cholera strain was introduced "as a result of environmental contamination with feces," the report faulted sanitation conditions at the Mirebalais MINUSTAH camp, saying they "were not sufficient to prevent fecal contamination of the Meye Tributary System of the Artibonite River."

'EXPLOSIVE SPREAD'

Explaining the epidemic's "explosive spread" along the Artibonite River and throughout Haiti, the report said "simultaneous water and sanitation and healthcare system deficiencies" contributed to the spread. It noted Haitians used river water for washing, bathing, drinking and recreation.

Despite pointing an apparent finger at the U.N. peacekeepers' camp, the U.N.-appointed panel did not directly blame them for starting the epidemic.

"The Independent Panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual," it said.

Repeating a longstanding U.N. position over the cholera in Haiti, a U.N. spokesman in New York said the report "does not present any conclusive scientific evidence linking the outbreak to the MINUSTAH peacekeepers or the Mirebalais camp"

"Anyone carrying the relevant strain of the disease in the area could have introduced the bacteria into the river," Michel Bonnardeaux, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, told Reuters.

While not apportioning blame, the expert panel recommended that U.N. peacekeepers and personnel traveling from cholera-endemic areas be screened for the disease and given antibiotics before departure for their mission country.

It also recommended that to prevent contamination of a local environment, U.N. installations worldwide should effectively treat their fecal waste using on-site systems.

There was no immediate reaction to the U.N. panel's report from the government in Haiti, where President-elect Michel Martelly, a former singer, will take office on May 14.

The panel was chaired by Alejandro Cravioto, a Mexican who works at the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh.

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