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Vol. 74/No. 45      November 29, 2010

Preventable epidemic
inflicts big toll in Haiti
(front page)
MIAMI—The death toll from the spread of cholera in Haiti surpassed 1,000 as of November 14 and will continue rising.

More than 16,000 people have been hospitalized, according to the country’s health ministry. UN health officials expect the epidemic to last for years and predict 270,000 could fall ill from the disease.

Protests erupted in several areas November 15-16 demanding the UN military force leave the country and decrying the Haitian government for its miserable response to the social crisis. Many blame UN troops from Nepal for introducing cholera by using the same river to dispose of sewage waste that supplies drinking water to people in the Artibonite river valley where the disease originated. UN officials dispute any connection, although the cholera strain reportedly matches one found in South Asia.

Some of the protests took place in and near Cap-Haitien on the northern coast. Demonstrators set up burning barricades and torched a police station. At least two young men were killed by UN troops, one of them shot in the back, a local official told AFP news service. UN soldiers dispersed demonstrators with tear gas. UN humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher and Haitian president René Préval called on demonstrators to cease their protests.

Cholera had been nonexistent in Haiti for at least 50 years. But abysmal living conditions for millions have deteriorated in the wake of the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. More than 1 million remain homeless.

Hurricane Tomas passed through Haiti November 5, killing 20 people and flooding areas of the country. This helped disperse the waterborne disease, which has spread to the capital of Port-au-Prince and most of the country.

One case has been reported in neighboring Dominican Republic, but the disease is not expected to become epidemic there because of the country’s better conditions and higher level of development.

Cholera can lay dormant for several days and kills in hours, but is easy to eliminate with modern sanitation. It can be cured by rehydration and in extreme cases with inexpensive antibiotics. However, millions in Haiti lack access to soap and clean water; health-care facilities are few and far between and medical supplies and personnel are scarce.

The Cuban medical mission was among the first to care for patients suffering from cholera in the Artibonite region. Additional nurses and medical assistants were rapidly sent to strengthen the Cuban contingent’s response to the spread of the disease. Cuba’s continuing medical brigades contrast sharply with the highly publicized medical efforts from the United States immediately after the earthquake, which all but disappeared within a couple months.

Whatever the original source, it’s clear the spread of the epidemic is rooted in Haiti’s underdevelopment, resulting from decades of imperialist plunder and domination.

Less than 40 percent of billions of dollars of aid pledged after the earthquake has been delivered. Some $1.15 billion promised by Washington has still not been sent.

Many workers in Miami have family in Haiti. Selitane Senelus from St. Louis du Nord came to the United States just before the earthquake. “Schools were closed in the region where I’m from after nine children from the region died from cholera,” she said. “A lot of people still don’t know what to do if they get infected. They don’t have a radio to inform them and don’t have money to buy clean water. In some areas, people have to walk for several hours to get to a hospital.”

“The real problem in Haiti is the lack of infrastructure,” said Jean Baptiste Silas, a socialist and airport car service driver in Miami, who had been involved in struggles of peasants and for democratic rights before he left Haiti. “There are no water treatment plants and no electricity, which forces people who need to cook to cut trees to make charcoal. The mango trees are being cut and people lose the fruits they could have eaten. This causes even more erosion, which brings more flooding.”

This easily preventable disease is on the rise around the world, along with other seemingly natural calamities forced on working people as economic and social breakdowns mount as a consequence of the deepening worldwide crisis of capitalism. There was a cholera outbreak in Peru in 1991 that spread to 16 countries throughout Latin America, killing 9,000 and infecting nearly a million people over several years. According to the World Health Organization every year 3 million to 5 million are infected with cholera and 100,000 to 120,000 people die from it.  
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