UN acknowledges role in triggering cholera outbreak; vows to help

PORT-AU-PRINCE— A U.N. acknowledgement that it played a role in introducing cholera to Haiti and vows to aid victims were welcomed this week in the Caribbean nation, which has experienced the worst outbreak of the disease in recent history.

While the number of cholera cases has been significantly reduced from the initial outbreak in 2010, the fact that the preventable disease is still routinely sickening and killing Haitians is galling to many.

“The U.N. brought this sickness to Haiti so they need to pay the country back. A lot of people got sick, a lot have died,” said Michelle Raymond, who said her young son nearly died of the waterborne disease in 2013.

This week, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq acknowledged the United Nations’ ”own involvement” in the introduction of cholera to impoverished Haiti and pledged that “a significantly new set of U.N. actions” will be presented in the next two months.

On Aug. 19, Haq added that “the United Nations has a moral responsibility to the victims.” He said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is developing a package that would provide “material assistance” to cholera victims in Haiti, indicating for the first time that some people might get financial help from the U.N.

For years the U.N. had denied or been silent on longstanding allegations that it was responsible for the outbreak, while answering lawsuits in U.S. courts by claiming immunity under a 1946 convention.

Haq reiterated that the world body’s legal position on immunity has not changed.

In a decision issued late Thursday, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld the United Nations’ immunity from a high-profile claim filed on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims who blame the U.N. for the epidemic in a country where any number of diseases thrive.

Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said victims’ advocates will be watching the U.N.’s actions closely. They have 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We will decide how to proceed based on whether the U.N.’s actions fulfill the cholera victims’ rights to an effective remedy,” Concannon said in a statement.

Researchers say there is ample scientific evidence the disease was introduced to Haiti’s biggest river by inadequately treated sewage from a base of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, one of the units that have rotated in and out of a multinational force in Haiti since 2004.

Cholera is caused by bacteria that produces severe diarrhea and is contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. It can lead to a rapid, painful death through complete dehydration, but is easily treatable if caught in time.

Nearly six years later, there has been scant progress addressing the chronic lack of sanitation and access to clean water that allow the disease to flourish.

Some Haitians expressed exasperation that the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym Minustah, took so long to acknowledge its role.

“So now they are going to find a way to clean the disease from the country? It has been here for years and it seems like it is here to stay,” Jhony Nordlius said as he pushed a wheelbarrow past a fetid canal where children were splashing and collecting garbage.

In a densely packed cluster of shacks where cholera flares up each year, residents who heard about the U.N.’s admission were hopeful they might get compensation. Gerda Blot said she and her daughter were hospitalized for several days in 2014 after drinking tainted water.

“I spent a lot of savings getting well. And I know it is still out there, that cholera disease,” she said outside her plywood and sheet metal home.

Cholera has killed more than 9,300 Haitians and sickened over 800,000. It showed up some 10 months after a devastating earthquake, deepening the country’s misery at a time when it was ill-equipped to cope with another crisis.

The disease is now considered “endemic” in Haiti, meaning it’s an illness that occurs regularly.

Health workers are hopeful that the U.N. has made a critical step forward by finally acknowledging its role in the cholera outbreak.

“We look forward to the new response the U.N. plans to unveil, and we continue to call on the organization to devote additional resources,” said Dr. Gary Gottlieb of Boston-based Partners in Health, an NGO which operates clinics and hospitals in 12 locations in Haiti.