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Q&A: Plagued with Cholera, Haitians Strike Out Against UN

A woman walks past an unconscious man on a street just outside the quake-destroyed Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 16 Nov. 2010. The country's cholera death toll has passed 1,000 as the epidemic showed no sign of abating.
A woman walks past an unconscious man on a street just outside the quake-destroyed Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 16 Nov. 2010. The country's cholera death toll has passed 1,000 as the epidemic showed no sign of abating.

The cholera in Haiti is spreading and with it, violent demonstrations against U.N. troops. Haitian and international officials on Wednesday appealed for calm. Officials, including Haiti's President Rene Preval, say the demonstrations are hampering the medical response to the epidemic.

To get a clearer picture of what is driving the outburst of violence, VOA turned to Julie Sell of the American Red Cross office in Port-au-Prince.

What can you tell us about these anti-U.N. protests?

"There are reports of demonstrations in the north of Haiti in Cap-Haitien [and] clashes between people in some of the poorer neighborhoods and U.N. troops.  That has since spread to another town in the north, Hinche. And there are demonstrations going on in Port-au-Prince. There are different interpretations of what's going on. Some people have suggested that this is frustration with the U.N. There are rumors that have run rampant in the country that U.N. troops may have introduced cholera to Haiti. It hasn't been seen in this country for many, many decades."

CHOLERA PREVENTION & SYMPTOMS

Watch Out For:

  • Profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, leg cramps *Without treatment you could die within a few hours time

    Prevent Getting Infected By:
  • Drinking bottled water (avoid ice)
  • Washing hands often with soap and water

    Using latrines or burying feces (avoid defecating in or near water sources)

    Cooking food well (making sure food is hot, peel fruits, vegetables, avoid raw foods)

    Cleaning kitchen, bathrooms, laundry rooms at least 30 meters away from water sources

    *Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What has been the reaction of the United Nations to these allegations?

"The U.N. has issued a statement, saying it believes that these demonstrations are politically motivated. Remember, Haiti has an incredibly important election coming up in two weeks time, November 28.  And this is a country that has a history of demonstrations before elections, some of which are politically motivated.  So, I think, you know, what started these demonstrations is open to interpretation. What I think is clear is that this is a very frustrated population. The fact that we are dealing with both the after effects of a January earthquake, which left many people homeless and very poor, coupled with a serious cholera outbreak has heightened tensions."

You cannot introduce cholera by coming into a country.  It's not a disease you can spread like tuberculosis or the flu or anything like that, correct?

"My understanding from the medical experts, this is not an airborne disease, if that's what you mean.  But there is a type of bacteria which is associated with the spread of cholera. Once cases started appearing in Haiti in late October, tests were done to determine what the strain of cholera was and this bacteria was identified.  The source was linked to the Artibonite River, and the strain is similar to a strain that is found in South Asia.  There are varying questions about how that bacteria arrived in Haiti.  But this is not something that is spread by coughing or all sorts of other things. It is a waterborne disease. It's human feces that transmits this virus. So, any contaminated water, food  that sort of thing can spread the disease. It's highly contagious.  And part of the reason that we in the Red Cross and the humanitarian community is so concerned is that people can die within a few hours of showing symptons.

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