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UN testing base as source of cholera outbreak in Haiti

By Jonathan M . Katz
Associated Press / October 28, 2010

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MIREBALAIS, Haiti — UN investigators took samples of foul-smelling waste trickling behind a Nepalese peacekeeping base toward an infected river system yesterday, following persistent accusations that excrement from the newly arrived unit caused the cholera epidemic that has sickened more than 4,000 people in the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Journalists visiting the base unannounced happened upon the investigators. Vincenzo Pugliese, mission spokesman, confirmed after the visit that the military team was testing for cholera — the first public acknowledgment that the 12,000-member force is directly investigating allegations its base played a role in the outbreak.

Meanwhile the epidemic continued to spread, with cases confirmed in two new departments in Haiti’s north and northeast, said Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. At least 303 people have died and 4,722 have been hospitalized.

International aid workers and the United Nations are focusing their efforts on stemming the spread of the outbreak, first noted Oct. 20. But Haitians are increasingly turning their attention to its origins: How did a disease which has not been seen in Haiti since the early 20th century suddenly erupt in the countryside?

The mission strongly denies its base was a cause of the infection. Pugliese said civilian engineers collected samples from the base Friday which tested negative for cholera, and the mission’s military force commander ordered the additional tests to confirm. He said no members of the Nepalese battalion have the disease.

“They are located exactly where the sickness started,’’ said Mirebalais Mayor Laguerre Lochard, who is also running for Senate. Area residents are also blaming the base; a young man walked by its gate laughing and chanting, “Co-co-cholera. Cholera MINUSTAH’’ — referring to the peacekeeping mission by its French initials.

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