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Scientists Now Say U.N. Peacekeepers Likely Culprit In Cholera Outbreak That Killed Thousands

Scientists Now Say U.N. Peacekeepers Likely Culprit In Cholera Outbreak That Killed Thousands

A panel of independent U.N. experts who investigated the source of a deadly cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians has concluded that United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal "most likely" introduced the strain into the Haitian population.

The panel’s findings mark a dramatic retreat from their earlier, 2011 finding that found it impossible to assign responsibility for the strain’s origins; the evidence was incomplete evidence, they said at the time, and too many things — inadequate water, lousy sanitation — contributed to the 2010 epidemic’s spread.

The latest findings will increase pressure on the United Nations to acknowledge responsibility for introducing cholera into the country. In February, the United Nations invoked diplomatic immunity in dodging legal responsibility for paying compensation to victims and their families. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and his top advisors specifically invoked the panel’s earlier, ambivalent findings in arguing that the U.N. bore no legal responsibility for the epidemic.

But now the four scientists — Alejandro Cravioto, Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata — who wrote the original report say that new evidence that has come to light in the past two years. While not conclusive, that evidence has strengthened the case against the United Nations.

The experts — who no longer work for the United Nations — also defended their initial findings, saying the "majority of evidence" at the time was "circumstantial." They added, that the "current strain Nepal strain of cholera was not available for molecular analysis" at the time.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission was established in 2004 to help bring security and stability to Haiti. In 2010, following a deadly earthquake, the U.N. expanded its presence in the Caribbean nation.

The team’s new report tracks the arrival in October 2010 of a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers from Kathmandu to a U.N. encampment in the Haitian village of Mirebalais, which sits on the banks of the Artibonite River. Within days, Haitian hospitals along the river saw a dramatic increase of deaths from diarrhea and dehydration, a signature. The illnesses marked the open chapter in a major cholera epidemic that quickly spread across the country.

The report stated that the peacekeepers had constructed a series a "haphazard "system of pipes from the U.N. camps showers and toilets to the six fiberglass tanks. The "black water waste," which included human feces, was then transferred to an open, unfenced, septic pit, where children and animals frequently roamed. The system provided "significant potential" for contamination.

The panel ruled out the possibility that the cholera strain had originated in the region, saying the lethal strain was "very similar but not identical to the South Asian strain of Vibrio Cholerae."

"The exact source of introduction of cholera into Haiti will never be known with scientific certainty, as it is not possible to travel back in time to conduct the necessary investigations," the panel’s members wrote in its new report.. "However, the preponderance of the evidence and the weight of the circumstantial evidence does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with the Mirebalais MINUSTAH [The U.N. Mission in Haiti] facility were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti."

"We would like to highlight here that we do not feel that this was a deliberate introduction of cholera into Haiti; based on the evidence we feel that the introduction of cholera was an accidental and unfortunate confluence of events," the panelists add. "Action should be taken in the future to prevent such introduction of cholera into non-endemic countries in the future."

The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed a compensation claim in November 2011 on behalf of the families of 5,000 victims, and is preparing claims on behalf of thousands more. Brian Concannon, the director of the organization, told Turtle Bay back in February that the U.N. should be held liable for "negligent failure" to screen peacekeepers from a country known to have cholera and for the "reckless disposal of waste into Haiti’s largest water system."

Concannon said that while the United Nations has signed a status of forces agreement with Haiti that shields it from suits brought by Haitian courts, the global body has an obligation to provide "an alternative mechanism" for victims to seek redress. His group is now preparing to file a lawsuit against the U.N. in the United States and in Haiti, according to Beatrice Lindstrom, a staff attorney with the Boston-based organization. Lindstrom declined to identify the court, but said they would move swiftly. "We don’t have a filling date, but we are pressing full speed ahead," she said.

Earlier this month, Ban wrote a letter to Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-NJ) detailing more than $140 million the U.N. has spent on cholera treatment and prevention activities. "These efforts have helped to decrease the rate of new infection by 90 percent since the outbreak began," he said. "The mortality rate has been brought down to around 1 percent."

But he voiced concern that cholera rates will continue to rise during the upcoming hurricane season and chided governments for committing too little money to the effort. "I am concerned that the austere fiscal climate affecting member states could make it difficult to obtain new financial commitments for addressing cholera in Haiti."

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