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UN's Ban names panel for Haiti cholera probe

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon named four experts Thursday from Latin America, the United States and India to investigate the source of Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which some Haitians blame on U.N. peacekeepers.

A Haitian man with cholera waits to receive treatment at a clinic set up by the International Red Cross in Port-au-Prince December 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kena Betancur

More than 3,400 people have died of cholera in Haiti since the outbreak started in October. In November, protesters stoned a U.N. patrol and shouted slogans accusing U.N. soldiers from Nepal of bringing the disease.

Last month, U.S. researchers reported the cholera strain came from south Asia and mostly closely resembled one circulating in Bangladesh. The United Nations has so far said there is no scientific evidence the Nepalese battalion is responsible and all tests on its troops have proved negative.

But when he announced on December 17 the plan to create an independent panel of inquiry, Ban said, “There remain fair questions and legitimate concerns that demand the best answer that science can provide.”

Ban said Thursday the panel would be chaired by Alejandro Cravioto, who is Mexican but works at the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh.

The other three members are Claudio Lanata of the Instituto de Investigacion Nutritional in Peru, Daniele Lantagne of Harvard University in the United States, and Balakrish Nair of India’s National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases.

The panel will review all information and data available to date and travel to Haiti to conduct investigations on the ground, Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said in a statement.

It will operate independently of the United Nations, have access to all U.N. records, reports, facilities, and staff members, and report both to Ban and the Haitian government, Nesirky said.

Cholera is caused by a bacterium that thrives in water. It is spread when infected fecal matter gets into unchlorinated water, seafood such as shellfish or other food.

U.N. investigations so far have focused on effluent from latrines at the Nepalese battalion headquarters. The U.N. mission, known as MINUSTAH, went to Haiti in 2004 following civil strife in the Caribbean nation.

Reporting by Patrick Worsnip