The U.N. Faces Blame for a Cholera Outbreak in Haiti

An outbreak that has killed 5,000 originated near a U.N. camp

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A U.N. panel ruled yesterday that the cholera outbreak that swept through Haiti after last year's devastating earthquake originated on a riverbank right by a U.N. camp. But depending on who you get your news from, that's either tantamount to an indictment of Nepalese peacekeeping troops or little more than a nasty coincidence.

Reuters was among the first to report the story yesterday, pointing out in its lead that "a U.N. spokesman said [the finding] could not be seen as conclusive," and later that  the four-member panel appointed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to find the source of the outbreak, "carefully avoided apportioning any direct blame or responsibility to U.N. peacekeepers, citing "a confluence of circumstances" behind the epidemic." The news service, like the officials it was citing, shied away from fully implicating Nepalese troops, who are though by many to have brought the disease with them from Nepal, where it is endemic.

In its report this morning, National Public Radio pulled no such punches. Within the first third of its story NPR notes, "While the U.N. panel stops short of saying Nepalese peacekeepers carried cholera to Haiti, their report says preliminary genetic tests indicate 'the strains isolated in Haiti and Nepal ... were a perfect match.' " It goes on to point out that while the U.N. panel's report cites a confluence of factors, it "does not mince words," declaring, "The sanitation conditions at the [U.N. camp] were not sufficient to prevent contamination of the Meye Tributary System with human fecal waste."

As with many news stories, this one depends greatly on how it's reported. The idea that an international humanitarian force could have brought with it a health disaster that cost some 5,000 lives is nearly unthinkable. On the other hand, whitewashing or playing down the facts and findings could lead to a repeat. This is one of those situations that nobody -- not the reporters, not the United Nations, not the Nepalese troops, and definitely not the Hatians -- wants to be in. And it's made no less awkward when the news angles differ the way they do. Ugh all around.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.