The cholera epidemic that has killed more than 900 people in Haiti is an “issue of national security” two weeks before elections there, the head of United Nations humanitarian aid operations said today.
“This is far beyond, now, a health or sanitation matter,” Nigel Fisher told reporters in New York during a teleconference from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Fisher said the UN is concerned about “political incitement of demonstrations” against cholera treatment centers and UN peacekeeping bases ahead of Nov. 28 presidential and parliamentary elections.
More than 700 demonstrators targeted a UN base and cholera treatment centers today in Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city. Haitians who claim UN peacekeeping soldiers from Nepal were the cause of the cholera outbreak set two police stations on fire after clashing with authorities in a protest at a UN base, according to Radio Kiskeya.
“We had to fire tear gas to disburse the crowd,” Vincenzo Pugliese, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said. “The situation remains volatile.”
The UN is concerned that cholera centers are being targeted because of fears that people living in surrounding neighborhoods will become infected, and that Nepalese peacekeepers are being blamed for bringing the disease into the country, Pugliese said. The UN has traced the strain of cholera to southern Asia, but hasn’t confirmed that it was brought into Haiti by Nepalese soldiers.
The outbreak has killed 917 people, with 14,642 hospitalizations, according to the Haitian Health Ministry’s website.
Pugliese said that with the combination of the cholera epidemic and the earthquake that killed 300,000 people in January, “people become vulnerable and are easily manipulated.”
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is still recovering from the earthquake that caused $7.8 billion in damage and crippled the nation’s government. The cholera outbreak originated last month in the Artibonite River valley, which wasn’t severely damaged by the earthquake.
The UN and Haiti’s government are countering the unrest with an education campaign including hourly radio messages about how to prevent the spread of cholera and a six-hour program yesterday. Mobile phone text messages and loudspeakers in camps for the 1.3 million people displaced by the earthquake also are being used.
The UN last week issued an appeal for $160 million in aid to deal with the epidemic. Fisher said that the number of cases will increase “significantly” in coming days.