Those following the two-year-old saga of the United Nations and cholera in Haiti were startled by a pair of headlines last week. "UN launches ambitious $2.2 billion plan to eliminate cholera in Haiti, DR," trumpeted the Associated Press on Dec. 11, reporting on a press conference by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Reuters echoed: "UN's Ban launches bid to stamp out cholera in Haiti."
This seemed like very big news for two reasons. First, such a plan would indeed be ambitious. In the 25 months since Vibrio cholerae El Tor bacteria was confirmed in Haiti for the first time, 7,805 people have died, along more than 400 in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The waterborne pathogen has contaminated nearly every mountain village and barrio stream on the Caribbean island. Yet Ban told reporters at the event that eradicating the disease was a matter of will. "Science," the secretary-general explained, "tells us it can be done."
This would have been the second surprise. Throughout the epidemic, science has been the last thing the U.N.'s political leaders have wanted to talk about.
The crisis began in October 2010, when Haitians began dying en masse along the rural Artibonite River. As Haiti had no known history with cholera -- there had never been a confirmed case before -- suspicion quickly focused on the horrendous sanitation at a U.N. base. The installation was home to a detachment of Nepalese soldiers, next to one of the river's main tributaries. U.N. officials in Port-au-Prince actively tried to dismiss the claims as pernicious rumors while mounting a clandestine and amateurish investigation behind the scenes. Within days of the outbreak, stories in the international press already showed not only that the Haitian rumors about the base were true and that the U.N. was dissembling, but that the strain of cholera matched a current outbreak in Nepal. The soldiers had traveled from that outbreak to Haiti just before Haiti's epidemic began.
That was two years ago. Since then scores of epidemiologists -- including those appointed by the U.N. itself -- have unearthed overwhelming evidence supporting the hypothesis that the soldiers carried the disease and introduced it to Haiti through negligent sanitation. In response, U.N. officials have ignored, dismissed, or mischaracterized it all. For the last year, they have done so in the face of a legal action brought on behalf of thousands of cholera victims' families -- demanding, among other things, massive U.N. investment in Haitian water and sanitation.
So if the secretary-general really did announce a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up Haiti's long-degraded water systems -- even without an admission of responsibility -- it would be front-page stuff. But, alas, the headlines were wrong.