Haiti confirms cholera deaths as fuel shortage, protests hamper access to clean water

Courtesy of United Nations

After more than three years without a single confirmed case of cholera, Haiti is confirming the deaths of at least eight people from the deadly waterborne disease.

The deaths were confirmed to the Miami Herald by an official in the government Sunday, just hours after the United Nations confirmed there was an outbreak in the Caribbean nation where weeks of ongoing civil unrest may have left Haitians vulnerable to a resurgence of the disease.

Preventing the spread of cholera requires hand washing with soap and clean water. But this is increasingly complicated in Haiti where water is becoming more scarce. On Sunday, as officials confirmed the presence of the disease, the country’s leading supplier of potable water, Caribbean Bottling Company, announced that it had run out of diesel — and cannot produce or deliver clean drinking water. The shortage is the result of a gang blockade of the country’s main fuel terminal, Varreux, that is now headed into its third week.

The U.N. said that the positive case of cholera was confirmed Sunday by the National Public Health Laboratory in Port-au-Prince after the government’s cholera surveillance mechanism detected the suspected case. In a separate statement, Haiti’s Ministry of Health said the case was discovered in the Savane Pistache/ Decayette area of Port-au-Prince. Additional suspected cases are currently being investigated in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cité Soleil, the ministry said.

In July, the sprawling Port-au-Prince slum was the site of deadly shootouts between rival gangs that left at least 470 people dead, injured or missing over a nine-day period, and countless women the victims of rape.

“The United Nations is actively monitoring the situation and is working with the government to mount an emergency response to this potential outbreak, focused not only on limiting the spread of the disease, but also on informing the population how to take immediate lifesaving action at the household level,” the U.N. said. “Additional support will consist of expanded surveillance, increased water and sanitation provision, the opening of cholera treatment centers and the reinforcement of case management.”

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Cholera first appeared in Haiti 12 years ago this month when an outbreak was confirmed on Oct. 20, 2010 — 10 months after the country’s devastating earthquake that left over 300,000 dead. More than 800,000 Haitians became infected and over 10,000 died from the disease. Though introduced by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, the global body for years refused to admit its responsibility or apologize, leaving some of its own independent rights experts to criticize its response and failure to compensate victims.

Earlier this year, one of the country’s leading public health experts, Dr. Jean William Pape, announced that Haiti had marked three years with no confirmed cases and was on the road to be cholera-free. However, taming cholera requires access to proper water and sanitation and a health infrastructure, all of which have been challenging during recent anti-government protests and an ongoing fuel shortage that have blocked access to roads, water and other basic services.

On Sunday, the U.N. said specialized emergency response teams are ready to be deployed to support affected communities but acknowledged that it may be difficult given the current sociopolitical environment. Haiti has been the site of ongoing widespread and often violent anti-government protests for weeks. Faced with higher food and fuel prices, Haitians have been taking to the streets, attacking banks while decrying gang violence, the rising costs of food and fuel and demanding the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

“It is imperative that these teams be guaranteed safe access to areas where cases have been confirmed or suspected, to help mitigate the risk of a large or disruptive outbreak,” the U.N. said.

In addition to the protests, Haiti is also dealing with a shortage of fuel as the powerful G-9 gang federation continues to block access in and out of the Varreux fuel terminal after three weeks. The blockade has led to gas stations being out of fuel, and banks, supermarkets and other businesses on Sunday announcing reduced hours of operation this week.

In a statement, the Caribbean Bottling Company, which produces the brand Culligan, said the lack of fuel had affected production and available stocks. It remained unclear late Sunday whether government schools, which are supposed to reopen Monday, would do as as previously announced as some private schools decided to delay the start of their school year.

Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, on Sunday called for a resolution of the fuel crisis saying that lives were at stake. In a tweet, Carrière wrote he’s “very concerned about the humanitarian impact of the blockade of the oil terminal.”