Already one of the world's most impoverished nations, Haiti is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake that struck two years ago. And now, thousands are dead thanks to a deadly, highly contagious strain of cholera. The kicker? It's a disease native to central Asia -- and the United Nations brought it overseas.
The vicious form of cholera has already killed 7,000 people in Haiti, where it surfaced in a remote village in October 2010. Leading researchers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere told ABC News that, despite UN denials, there is now a mountain of evidence suggesting the strain originated in Nepal, and was carried to Haiti by Nepalese soldiers who came to Haiti to serve as UN peacekeepers after the earthquake that ravaged the country on Jan. 12, 2010 -- two years ago today. Haiti had never seen a case of cholera until the arrival of the peacekeepers, who allegedly failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their base.
"What scares me is that the strain from South Asia has been recognized as more virulent, more capable of causing severe disease, and more transmissible," said John Mekalanos, who chairs the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard Medical School. "These strains are nasty. So far there has been no secondary outbreak. But Haiti now represents a foothold for a particularly dangerous variety of this deadly disease."
More than 500,000 Haitians have been infected, and Mekalanos said a handful of victims who contracted cholera in Haiti have now turned up in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and in Boston, Miami and New York, but only in isolated cases.
How cholera landed in Haiti has been a politically charged topic for more than a year now, with the United Nations repeatedly refusing to acknowledge any role in the outbreak despite mounting evidence that international peacekeepers were the most likely culprits. The UN has already faced hostility from Haitians who believe peacekeeping troops have abused local residents without consequence. They now face legal action from relatives of victims who have petitioned the UN for restitution. And the cholera charge could further hamper the UN's ability to work effectively there, two years after the country was hobbled by the earthquake.
As if Haiti needed something else to worry about. Thanks, United Nations!