Source: ABC News, March 9, 2012.
Bill Clinton, UN Envoy, Admits Peacekeepers as Source of Haiti Cholera
By MATTHEW MOSK
The United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, offered the strongest statements to date acknowledging the role U.N. peacekeepers are believed to have played in the deadly outbreak of cholera in quake-ravaged Haiti.
During a tour of a hospital there this week [in the town of Mirebalais, just north of the Nepalese MINUSTAH camp], Clinton was pressed on the U.N.'s role in an outbreak that has killed more than 7,000 Haitians -- a politically-charged topic for more than a year now, with the U.N. repeatedly refusing to accept responsibility for the outbreak despite mounting scientific evidence that international peacekeepers were the most likely culprits.
"I don't know that the person who introduced cholera in Haiti, the U.N. peacekeeper, or [U.N.] soldier from South Asia, was aware that he was carrying the virus [bacteria]," Clinton said, adding that "it was the proximate cause of cholera. That is, he was carrying the cholera strain. It came from his waste stream into the waterways of Haiti, into the bodies of Haitians."
Clinton went on to say that he believes what "really caused" the outbreak was the country's dismal sanitary conditions. "Unless we know that he knew or that they knew, the people that sent him, that he was carrying that virus and therefore that he could cause the amount of death and misery and sickness, I think it's better to focus on fixing it."
Clinton's comments came in response to a question from Ansel Herz, a freelance journalist working on behalf of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
In a statement to ABC News, U.N. spokesperson Kieran Dwyer said, "In relation to former President Clinton's reported remarks to the press this week in Haiti, we note that he emphasized the importance of focusing on improving Haiti's sanitation system and the fact that the United Nations and others are working hard to do this." Dwyer added that in 2011, over three million people received water supplies, water treatment products, water filtering systems and sanitation materials from United Nations agencies and its humanitarian partners.
In January, ABC News reported on compelling scientific evidence suggesting a United Nations peacekeeper from Nepal carried the virulent strain of cholera to a remote village in October 2010, and dumping of raw sewage from the UN encampment sent the disease into a key water supply for Haitians. In addition to killing 7,000 people, more than 500,000 Haitians have been infected in Haiti.
Leading researchers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere told ABC News that they felt confident they had traced the strain back to Nepal, and that they believe it was carried to Haiti by Nepalese soldiers who came to Haiti to serve as U.N. peacekeepers after the earthquake that ravaged the country on Jan. 12, 2010. Haiti had never seen a case of cholera until the arrival of the peacekeepers, who allegedly failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their base.
"What scares me is that the strain from South Asia has been recognized as more virulent, more capable of causing severe disease, and more transmissible," said John Mekalanos, who chairs the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard Medical School. "These strains are nasty. So far there has been no secondary outbreak. But Haiti now represents a foothold for a particularly dangerous variety of this deadly disease."
The U.N. had previously repeatedly said there exists no conclusive evidence fingering peacekeepers for the outbreak. The international organization has already faced hostility from Haitians who believe peacekeeping troops have abused local residents without consequence. They now face legal action from relatives of victims who have petitioned the U.N. for restitution. And the cholera charge could further hamper the U.N.'s ability to work effectively there, two years after the country was hobbled by the earthquake.
Over the summer, Assistant Secretary General Anthony Banbury told ABC News that the U.N. sincerely wanted to know if it played a part in the outbreak, but independent efforts to answer that question had not succeeded. He said the disease could have just as easily been carried by a backpacker or civilian aid worker.
Banbury said the U.N., through both its peacekeeping mission and its civilian organizations "are working very hard ... to combat the spread of the disease and bring assistance to the people. And that's what's important now."
"The scientists say it can't be determined for certainty where it came from," Banbury said. "So we don't know if it was the U.N. troops or not. That's the bottom line."
Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research called Clinton's comments an important first step toward accountability.
"President Clinton's acknowledgement, as a U.N. official, should bring us one step closer to the U.N. taking responsibility for what it has done, and fixing it." Weisbrot said.
Former US President Clinton was in Mirebalais, Haiti, visiting health centers and other other facilities. The first diagnosed cholera case in Haiti occurred just south of Mirebalais, in a small village next to the MINUSTAH camp housing Nepalese UN peacekeeping troops. The onset of the first diagnosed cholera case in Haiti occurred on October 14, 2010, likely from contaminated sewage leaking into the Mielle/Meye river next to the camp. Thereafter on October 20, 2010, a much larger epidemic started in the lower Artibonite valley, likely coming from an extensive contamination of the Mielle/Meye river with a large quantity of additional sewage coming from the UN camp. The sewage most likely flowed during the night north to the Artibonite river and then northwest to the lower Artibonite valley, causing the explosive early phase of the Haitian epidemic.
Former President Clinton was quoted as stating that cholera was introduced to Haiti by a "U.N. peacekeeper, or soldier from South Asia." While he seems open to the notion that peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti, his statement was sufficiently vague to avoid a definitive conclusion. "A soldier" or "a UN peacekeeper" would not have produced sufficient contaminated feces to simultaneously infect many people in the lower Artibonite valley. To do so requires many infected soldiers. Their feces were either dumped as septic waste directly into the river (most likely) or transferred to a non-chloronated septic pit that experienced a sudden, major leak into the river (less likely).
There were also some errors in the article, notably in the sentences, "Over the summer, Assistant Secretary General Anthony Banbury told ABC News that the U.N. sincerely wanted to know if it played a part in the outbreak, but independent efforts answer that question had not succeeded." The interview of UN's Banbury occurred in September, 2011 (i.e., not "over the summer") and was first referenced by ABC News on November 8, 2011. Second, Banbury's reference to "independent efforts to answer that question" refers to a UN-sponsored report (i.e., not "independent") which was published on May 4, 2011 before the seminal epidemiological study by Piarroux et al describing what likely occurred in the field, and the definitive laboratory study of Hendriksen et al comparing cholera specimens from Haiti and Nepal, finding them to be identical. Neither Piarroux et al nor Hendriksen et al have any link to the United Nations, and hence are truly independent.