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US Expert: Haiti Cholera Outbreak Could Last Number of Years

A street scene in Port-au-Prince, 16 Nov 2010

A street scene in Port-au-Prince, 16 Nov 2010

A U.S. government health expert said Thursday it may take years to completely eliminate cholera from Haiti, where the current outbreak has now claimed 1,100 lives. The United States and other donors are stepping up cholera-related assistance to Haiti.

U.S. officials believe the cholera outbreak in Haiti will be brought under control, but they say the strain of the disease observed there is especially virulent and that it may take years to eliminate.

At a press event here, the U.S. Agency for International Development's acting foreign disaster chief, Mark Ward, expressed confidence in the Haitian government's anti-cholera efforts even though the number of cases and deaths continue to rise.

Ward said U.S. aid to Haiti specific to the outbreak now exceeds $9 million, and is focused on water purification, both in major cities and the countryside, to stem the transmission of the disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control liaison to the USAID on the cholera outbreak, Menoj Menon, said Haiti was especially vulnerable because of dislocation from last January's earthquake, and the fact it was cholera-free for decades and the population lacked any natural immunity.

Menon said based on Haitian health data, including child mortality, the disease is likely to persist - albeit in small case numbers - for a matter of years.

"We expect, using that model, that Haiti is going to have sustained transmission for a number of years," said Menon. "We hope that given the current preventive and treatment measures that we have, that the biggest burden will be early on in the epidemic and that's what we're seeing now. But we expect that cases will continue, and that the organism will likely be present in the environment for a number of years."

Menon said the source of the outbreak will probably never be determined.

Haiti has been torn by violent protests this week by demonstrators blaming members of the U.N. peacekeeping force MINUSTAH for bringing the disease to Haiti.

State Department Special Coordinator for Haiti Thomas Adams expressed hope the protests will not disrupt efforts by the U.N. force to keep the peace during next week's elections.

"We hope they don't get out of hand. President [Rene] Preval, as you know, has condemned this violence against MINUSTAH and urged calm," said Adams. "We hope it passes and doesn't keep MINUSTAH from doing the very important job that they're doing for the elections."

Haitians vote November 28 in presidential and parliamentary elections postponed from February because of the earthquake disaster.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley Thursday stressed U.S. support for the electoral process, saying Haiti needs an effective, legitimate government to deal with the cholera outbreak and execute earthquake reconstruction plans.