Haitian cholera epidemic preventable

The cholera outbreak in Haiti need not have happened.

In just a few days, cholera has killed more than 250 Haitians, with more than 3,500 becoming ill. Cholera is caused by drinking dirty water or eating food cooked in contaminated water.

Since the January earthquake, medical authorities have cautioned about epidemics that could arise from corpses still trapped in rubble and from 2 million homeless people living in the streets in crowded camps. The downpours from the hurricane season, the authorities warned, could also spread diseases.

But they expected the diseases “in areas hit by the earthquake, and certainly not cholera,” said Alex Larsen, Haiti’s minister of health. Cholera has never before been found on the island, he said.

The surprise is that Haitians not directly affected by the earthquake, living outside of the capital in areas where there has always been a shortage of clean drinking water, are suddenly getting ill. Some aid agencies are suggesting that the Artibonite River is contaminated, making the people inhabiting the regions where the river crosses sick with cholera. But how did this river, situated north of the earthquake’s devastation in Port-au-Prince (the capital), become the source of the cholera disease?

“There is no evidence,” says Dr. Gabriel Timothee, a Haitian public health official, “that the Artibonite River is the source of the disease.”

Haitian President Rene Preval says the strain of Vibrio cholerae may actually have been imported. This would undercut the facile assumption that Haitians are the diseased ones, and that the international charity workers and U.N. soldiers are all healthy from countries with no cholera diseases.

In any event, the cholera outbreak shows the failure of the international relief effort.

The displaced people in the camps of Port-au-Prince have been complaining since two months after the earthquake that the Red Cross water they’ve been given to drink, for instance, gives them stomachaches.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars of donations that could have provided permanent clean drinking water is collecting interest for the numerous charity organizations making a business out of poverty and the earthquake in Haiti. And the U.S. government itself, which has allocated $1.15 billion in earthquake relief funds to Haiti, has not yet delivered for the most part.

Those with checkbook power in Washington are not in the business of saving lives unless it serves U.S. interests. Relying on international aid and nongovernmental organizations has not gotten the Haitian people anywhere. Haiti’s problems are rooted in aid that makes the people dependent on outside organizations that benefit from their suffering.

The “aid” business has not rebuilt the infrastructure in Haiti. It has not established a self-reliant system of permanent clean drinking water. It has not put Haitians in charge.

To do any of that would have made the presence of the aid organizations obsolete. But when Haitians die from a preventable outbreak of cholera, it makes the aid organizations seem important again.

Meanwhile, the suffering of Haitians deepens. The questions mount.

Ezili Danto is an award-winning playwright, performance poet and human rights attorney. She is the founder of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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