It has been 5 years since Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that killed 220,000 and left 1.5 million homeless. If that weren’t bad enough, UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought with them cholera. Cholera is endemic in Nepal so the peacekeepers were infected but not really sick; Haiti on the other hand had not seen cholera in over 100 years. We know that it was the Nepalese peacekeepers who brought cholera to Haiti because laboratory tests were performed that matched the strain carried by the Nepalese to the one circulating through Haiti. The untreated waste from the peacekeepers got into a local water supply that was being used for things like drinking and cooking after the earthquake, and that bacteria then got into the Haitians.
Cholera is caused by a bacterium Vibrio cholerae and causes profuse diarrhea leading to death from dehydration, which can happen in just a few hours. The cholera outbreak that started 5 years ago in Haiti has so far infected more than 700,000 people and killed 8,600.
Recently, a judge in the US threw out the lawsuit brought against the UN by the victims of the cholera outbreak. The judge wrote that the UN is immune to such lawsuits. Lawyers for the victims want the UN to admit guilt, apologize, make money available to eradicate cholera from Haiti, and pay damages to victims. Now I’m not a lawyer and I don’t really have the desire to read all of the UN charters that talk about this sort of legal immunity but from a purely human rights standpoint, doesn’t it make sense that since we have scientifically proven that the Nepalese UN peacekeepers brought cholera into Haiti, the UN should be held responsible. I understand that they didn’t knowingly bring cholera to Haiti but that’s not really the point here. Haiti was already an impoverished country before the earthquake and now they are trying to deal with a years-long imported cholera epidemic on top of everything else brought on by the devastating earthquake. The judge stated that a lawsuit like this would open up legal precedent for future lawsuits against the UN (for who knows what), but maybe the UN should just do the right thing without a lawsuit requiring them to do so. Just food for thought.
Cholera isn’t just impacting Haiti though. While the world was focusing on Ebola in West Africa last fall, cholera was ravaging another West African nation, Ghana. There cholera had taken hold in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, and was spreading through the open untreated sewage found in the slums. A small epidemic in Nigeria recently claimed some lives. In Zimbabwe, Health and Child Care Minister Dr. David Parirenyatwa urged citizens to be on high alert for cholera during the rainy season as rains often exacerbate poor water and waste infrastructure problems.
Although cholera isn’t quite as exotic as Ebola, it is still an infectious disease responsible for thousands of deaths around the world each year. And it’s only going to get worse as climate change impacts the planet. However, some smart people at the University of Maryland have done a bunch of research looking at 40 years worth of cholera outbreak data to develop a model to predict future outbreaks using satellites. This model looks at things like temperature, precipitation and groundwater levels to predict future outbreaks months in advance. With this kind of advance warning perhaps cholera is going to be the 3rd disease eradicated from the world, after smallpox (1st) and guinea worm (soon to be 2nd if all continues to go well).