Source of Haiti’s cholera outbreak may never be known

MIAMI, USA (MCT) — As speculation grows that a deadly cholera outbreak came to Haiti through a filthy sewage tank used by United Nations soldiers from Nepal, health experts said Friday that the exact source of the disease may never be known.

The outbreak has sparked more violent protests against peacekeepers,

“The bottom line is we don’t know exactly where it came from and we likely never will know,” said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Haitians began falling ill and dying in late October and others quickly blamed Nepalese soldiers who had arrived in the country earlier that month from a country where cholera is endemic.

Days later, Associated Press reporters spotted U.N. investigators taking samples of foul-smelling waste trickling from the Nepalese base toward the Artibonite River.

On Nov. 1, the CDC said a study by it and Haiti’s National Public Health Laboratory indicated that the cholera found in Haiti is of a strain commonly found in South Asia.

On Tuesday, Sweden’s ambassador to Haiti, Claes Hammar, was quoted in Stockholm’s Svenska Dagbladet newspaper saying “a diplomatic source” had told him the cholera came from Nepal. “It is 100 percent true,” he told the newspaper. “We have taken samples and traced the infection to Nepal.”

On Friday Hammar declined to make further comment.

A spokesman for the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs in Stockholm said the ministry “is waiting for the U.N. to confirm these statements. At this time we have no confirmation from the U.N.” The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has consistently disputed that the cholera came from the Nepalese camp.

On Oct. 27, Associated Press reporters visited the Nepalese camp near Mirebalais and reported finding overflowing septic tanks and the stench of excrement. Broken pipes spewed black liquid that dribbled toward the river where people were bathing, the wire service report said.

U.N. investigators tested sewage and wastewater from the Nepalese camp and found no evidence of cholera, said Nick Birnback, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping forces. Under World Health Organization guidelines, they didn’t test the Nepalese troops because they showed no signs of illness, he said.

But that has not stopped Haiti’s rumor mill from accusing Sanco Enterprises, S.A., which has a contract to clean the tanks, from causing the outbreak by illegally dumping waste.

Owner Clifford Baron, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., said he was unaware of the AP report but vehemently denied illegal dumping.

“Impossible,” he said.

Baron acknowledged he had not personally seen the U.N. site. “I am the president of the company; I do not go myself,” he said. “The drivers do it. I am proud to do what I am doing. I have dreams for my country. As a Haitian, I would never do anything to harm my country.”

Public health experts agree that finding the source is less important than finding ways to prevent more people from getting sick. On Friday, the CDC and other experts said the disease probably can’t be traced to a single source.

“The question of how it came here is not central in Haiti,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases for the CDC, speaking by phone from Haiti. “What’s central is making sure people do not die and know how not to get sick.”

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.