Sunday, October 30, 2016

Cholera: Not just a problem on The Oregon Trail

"Sally has died of cholera." This was a common problem in the game The Oregon Trail that many people remember from childhood. Tragically, cholera is still a major public health problem in countries around the world today. Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which is shed in fecal matter from an infected individual and is often transmitted via contamination of water sources. In countries with poor sanitation and a lack of clean water, this can lead to significant and deadly outbreaks.

Fast-forward from the days of the Oregon Trail to present-day Haiti. The country has suffered multiple tragedies in recent years. In 2010, they were rocked with a devastating earthquake; now, in 2016, they suffered the wrath of Hurricane Matthew. In light of these recent disasters, there have been humanitarian efforts from the United Nations and other relief organizations. Unfortunately, in the wake of the U.N.'s help after the 2010 earthquake, Haiti experienced its first cholera outbreak.

Before 2010, the small nation of Haiti had not been exposed to cholera. The citizens had not had the disease, and no immunity to the pathogen existed there. The first case of cholera was reported in mid-October 2010 in the region of the country along the Meille River. The disease quickly became rampant, with a hospital 60 miles away from the first case reporting new cases every 3.5 minutes within just 2 days. Since then, the outbreak has affected nearly 800,000 people and caused more than 9,000 deaths according to the official numbers; however, many experts fear the true impact has been far greater due to poor case reporting.

Flooding and destruction from Hurricane Matthew on October 4, 2016, have done nothing to help the situation. As many Haitians have lost their homes and their sources of fresh water, cholera has been on the rise again. Flooding has led to increases in contaminated waterways, leaving much of the water unsafe for consumption. Within four days of the storm passing through, officials were reporting 62 cases and 13 deaths from cholera.

The issue of how cholera came to be endemic in Haiti has been a topic of heated debate in the past few years. Many have blamed the U.N.'s Nepalese peacekeeping troops for bringing the bacteria with them into the country following the 2010 earthquake. The U.N. has denied any potential responsibility for the outbreak for years, even in the face of lawsuits from families of those who had died. Others hypothesized that increases in the temperature and salinity of the rivers throughout Haiti had allowed bacteria that may have been living in a dormant state in coastal waters to populate these rivers after the earthquake.

Scientific evidence, however, has been on the side of those who blame the U.N.'s peacekeeping troops for the introduction of the disease. Genetic analyses by whole genome sequencing of the bacteria found in Haiti in 2010 showed that this strain was highly similar to the strain found in Nepal in 2010. Additional studies using multiple-locus variable number tandem repeat analysis (aka DNA fingerprinting), a technique that looks at the number of times a DNA sequence is repeated at specific loci in the genome, also suggested a match between the Nepalese and Haitian strains.

On August 18, 2016, after 6 years of denial, the U.N. finally acknowledged that they did play a role in the initial outbreak. Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, said "over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera...[a] new response will be presented publicly within the next two months."

The latest chapter in this story comes with the announcement on October 24 that the U.N. is working on a plan to spend about $400 million on cholera in Haiti. Roughly $200 million will be spent on cholera elimination efforts, while the other $200 million will be given directly to families or communities affected by the disease. The full details of the plan are expected to be solidified in the coming weeks. However, questions remain over how the money for this plan will materialize. U.N. member states have already expressed discomfort with paying money to directly compensate victims, as this is not within the purview of the normal development work the U.N. is chartered to perform.

While the final details of the U.N.'s action plan remain to be worked out, it looks like Haiti will be receiving some much-needed support to aid in their cholera elimination efforts in the near future. As the country rebuilds after Hurricane Matthew, water sanitation will be a major focus for the nation. With financial support and help from the U.N., experts are hopeful that cholera can be eliminated fairly quickly from Haiti. That would serve as a major beacon of hope for a nation that has borne the brunt of tragedies for too long.

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