For the first time since an outbreak began six years ago, the United Nations (UN) has acknowledged it played a major role in the ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti.
In a draft internal report seen by the New York Times, the UN stated the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.” The UN has consistently refused any claim for compensation as it believes it is immune from legal action. The acceptance of responsibility does not change its legal stance.
Since 2010, the Haiti cholera epidemic has killed nearly 10,000 people and infected around 800,000 others, making it the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.
Cholera is a bacterial infection that spreads through human waste. The main symptom is watery diarrhea, which can be so severe it often leads to severe dehydration within hours.
No cases of the disease had been reported in Haiti for over a century until the island suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and the UN deployed peacekeepers to maintain a sense of order. Numerous scientific studies have found that peacekeeping troops brought the bacteria, Vibrio cholerae, over to Haiti and spread the disease through their poor sanitation practices.
Colonies of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium which causes cholera, on blood agar plate. Chansom Pantip/Shutterstock
The first victims were people who drank from the Artibonite River. By no coincidence, the river lies next to a base that housed 454 UN peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic.
Due to the poor access to sanitary toilets and healthcare in Haiti, the disease spread like wildfire. Considering the strain on infrastructure and resources from the earthquake that initially brought the epidemic, the struggle to contain the disease was all the more desperate. Within 10 weeks of the first reported victim, there were numerous cases across all 10 of Haiti’s regions.
The UN would have reduced the probability of an outbreak by 91 percent if they had administered chemoprophylaxis treatments, which “would cost under $1 per peacekeeper”, according to a study in PLOS Medicine.
The UN added in the report that “over the past year, the UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera… A new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities, and discussed with member states.”
In the meanwhile, the death count continues to rise.