UN peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti says report

EVIDENCE "strongly suggests" that a United Nations peacekeeping mission brought a cholera strain to Haiti that has killed thousands of people, a study by a team of epidemiologists and physicians has found.

The study is the strongest argument yet that newly-arrived Nepalese peacekeepers at a base near the town of Mirebalais brought with them the cholera, which spread through the waterways of the impoverished Caribbean country.

The disease has killed more than 5,500 people and sickened more than 363,000 others since October, according to the Haitian government.

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"Our findings strongly suggest that contamination of the Artibonite (river) and one of its tributaries downstream from a military camp triggered the epidemic," said the report in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The article says there is "an exact correlation" in time and place between the arrival of a Nepalese battalion from an area of its home country that was experiencing a cholera outbreak and the appearance of the first cases in the Meille river a few days later.

The remoteness of the Meille river in central Haiti and the absence of other factors make it unlikely that the cholera strain could have come to Haiti in any other way, the report says.

The study also found that bad sanitation at the camp would've made contamination of the water system possible.

But the UN report refrained from blaming any single group for the outbreak. While no other potential source of the bacteria itself was named, the report attributed the outbreak to a "confluence of circumstances," including a lack of water infrastructure in Haiti and Haitians' dependence on the river system.

Before that, for nearly two months after the outbreak, the UN, CDC and World Health Organisation refused to investigate the origin of the cholera, saying that it was more important to treat patients than to try to discover the source.

The article published in the CDC journal comes as health workers in Haiti wrestle with a spike in the number of cholera cases brought on by several weeks of rain fall.The aid group Oxfam said earlier last month it was treating more than 300 new cases a day, more than three times than when the disease peaked in the autumn.

Cholera is caused by a bacteria that produces severe diarrhoea and is contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

The disease has spread to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where more than 36 deaths have been reported since November.

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The new study argues it is important for scientists to determine the origin of cholera outbreaks and how they spread in order to eliminate "accidentally imported disease."

Moreover, the study says, figuring out the source of a cholera epidemic would help health workers better treat and prevent cholera by minimising the "distrust associated with the widespread suspicions of a cover-up of a deliberate importation of cholera."

It also argues that demonstrating an imported origin would compel "international organisations to reappraise their procedures."

After cholera surfaced last autumn, many Haitians believed the Nepalese peacekeepers were to blame, straining relations between the population and UN personnel and sparking angry protests. On the streets, cholera has become slang for something that must be banished from Haiti.

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