Two scientific studies published last year confirmed the origin of the cholera epidemic that struck Haiti in October 2010. It was indeed caused by massive amounts of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae in the Artibonite river delta, originating from the sewage in the Minustah soldiers' camp. Before being deployed to Haiti, this contingent had itself been exposed to a cholera epidemic of a similar strain in Nepal in September 2010.
Supported by lawyers demanding compensation, a group of victims has formed and is assigning responsibility for the cholera epidemic to "the United Nations' gross negligence and deliberate indifference to Haitian citizens' health and lives". At the same time, an NGO working in Haiti located the perfect culprit. In an article published in a scientific journal , Partners in Health states that the first person to come down with cholera (or, in any case, one of the "first major cases") was a man, 28, living in the town of Mirabelais, the location of the United Nations camp that spread the epidemic.
According to the NGO, this man had a "severe, untreated psychiatric illness". Even though "he had access to drinking water in his home, [he] wandered naked through the town during the day and drank and bathed in the river water". The man apparently died 24 hours after showing the first symptoms, infecting the people who handled his remains.
The article's authors believe this finding provides a wealth of lessons for improving global public health since this person apparently drank the river water due to his mental disability. So to avoid a future epidemic of this nature, the challenge lies in identifying and treating deviant behaviours, such as those practiced by this unfortunate and irresponsible mentally ill individual who, without realising it, allegedly caused the deaths of over 7,000 people.
The use of river water for drinking and bathing is not, however, a fringe activity in Haiti, but commonly practiced by the entire population. The fact that Minustah imported the cholera epidemic undoubtedly has many lessons for global public health. But the major lessons concern the foreign aid groups' procedures for monitoring their infrastructure and staff as well as the possibility of repairing any damage they may cause. By focusing on the irresponsible actions of one individual with deviant behaviour, is Partners in Health trying to use a minor event to create a diversion? (The organisation's co-founder is none other than Paul Farmer, United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti since 2009.)
To cite this content :
Claire Magone, The origin of cholera in Haiti: the culprit has been found!, 25 January 2012, URL : http://msf-crash.org/en/blog/medicine-and-public-health/origin-cholera-haiti-culprit-has-been-found
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