TOPICS > Health

Frustration Boils Over in Haiti as Riots Disrupt Efforts to Contain Cholera

November 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The people of Haiti faced new misery today as violence became an obstacle in the fight against cholera. The trouble came as the epidemic threatened to mushroom out of control.

The number of confirmed cholera deaths in Haiti climbed above 1,100 today, with more than 18,000 cases reported. And as the casualties rise, public frustration is boiling over. Riots broke out Monday in two northern cities, Cap-Haitien and Port-de-Paix. Protesters blamed U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal for bringing cholera to a country where it did not exist before.

MARCEL JEAN, protester (through translator): The reason we are protesting is because the U.N. is doing illegal things in the city. They bring the U.N. to give us security, but this is not security. This is devastation.

GWEN IFILL: Late on Tuesday, Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, urgently appealed for calm. He warned, the riots will disrupt efforts to stop the epidemic.

The violence did ease somewhat today in Cap-Haitien, but the protests continued. The U.N. has already grounded aid flights into that city. Some medical and water chlorination projects have been suspended as well. Food aid has also been affected. Yesterday, rioters targeted the U.N. World Food Program’s base in Port-au-Prince.

PHILIP WARD, spokesman, World Food Program: They began to attack the WFP warehouses, throwing stones and bottles. And then early in the hours of early this morning, those attacks went on to actually loot, begin looting food from the warehouses, and also to to burn it first thing this morning. We also lost a WFP vehicle and and generator in that looting.

GWEN IFILL: An investigation is under way to determine the origin of the outbreak. It is known that the strain of cholera bacteria is identical to one found in South Asia, where Nepal is located. And it first appeared in Haiti shortly after the Nepalese soldiers arrived.

Still, U.N. officials have denounced the allegations. They insist the riots are actually a ploy by opposition political groups to disrupt Haiti’s elections later this month.

I spoke earlier today with Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald, who is on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

Jacqueline, tell me what you have seen today.

JACQUELINE CHARLES, The Miami Herald: Well, essentially, I have been out today. And I was in Cafu (ph), which a community that is outside of the capital, where they are dealing with this cholera epidemic.

And so what has happened as a result of this is that you have had some stone-throwing, as people as teams have gone in to try and remove bodies of individuals who have died as a result of this disease. And so what we’re starting to see is how communities are starting to react. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of apprehension about cholera, that people aren’t sure. They’re afraid that they’re going to get infected.

GWEN IFILL: How did a cholera outbreak lead to rioting? What’s the connection?

JACQUELINE CHARLES: They’re still trying to determine whether or not there is a connection. I think we have to look at this issue in two different phases.

First and foremost, there is a cholera outbreak. People are very upset. People are looking for a place to sort of assess blame in response to this cholera epidemic. At the same time, this is Haiti. This is a situation where you have got people that are very frustrated, not just because of the earthquake or even before the earthquake.

We’re also in a moment of elections. But both U.N. officials and even officials within the Haitian government have said that they have reasons to believe that the protests that happen in Cap-Haitien really have little to do with cholera, and basically may be individuals who may be spoilers or trying to create some problems before the elections, which are on November 28.

GWEN IFILL: But has the unrest made it more difficult to take care of people suffering from cholera? Has it interfered with efforts to curb the outbreak?

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Yes. In Cap-Haitien, which is the second largest city, where we do have some reports of cholera, not as high as other regions in this country, it has created a problem, because the bridge was shut down. Individuals could not cross that bridge. They could not get to hospitals or treatment centers. And that was the concern.

We saw yesterday in the president’s national address, the individuals, just reminding them that we are in the middle of a crisis, of an epidemic, and when we’re having unrest, we’re having violent demonstrations, at the end of the day, it doesn’t serve its purpose. It doesn’t help the people. And the people that it’s hurting are the people who need the help the most.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any reason that we are seeing this outbreak now, so long after the earthquake, when we expected to see this kind of health problem right immediately afterward?

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Well, let’s remember the outbreak happened in an area that wasn’t hit by the earthquake, in an area where you didn’t have tent cities.

So while everybody was focused on the tent cities and believing that we were going to have some sort of epidemic, some sort of outbreak, the reality is it, it didn’t happen. This did not happen because of the earthquake.

And when you look at Haiti, you look at the situation that it has been living in for decades, you look at the unsanitary conditions that exist in this country today, humanitarian, health experts are saying that they are surprised, they are amazed that we didn’t have cholera before this, and that basically it was to be expected.

When you look in terms of the water, the lack of potable water in this country only 40 percent of patients have access to water. And that also means buying water.

GWEN IFILL: So, what exactly is the government or U.N. officials or anyone else doing to speak to the cause of the problem, to curb this outbreak?

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Well, there has been a very aggressive campaign that has been led by the government from day one.

They were the first ones to confirm that it was cholera, while the international community was still very hesitant to say that it was, because, at the time, they were saying, look, for every 100 people that get sick, 10 people are dying. That’s just so high a number.

But the government right away says, it’s cholera. That’s what we have. And they have led a very aggressive campaign, which is very unusual for this government, because their weakness has been communication. But they have been on the radio. They have been on television. They have been reminding people to wash their hands.

They have been telling people to make this homemade remedy, for them to start drinking the minute that they start having diarrhea or severe vomiting. And this is a place where diarrhea is endemic. Diarrhea is very common.

But, for all intents and purposes, they’re saying to everybody, look, first and foremost, think of it as cholera. You have cholera. Start drinking this remedy. Hydrate yourself. Get yourself to a clinic.

But, unfortunately, one of the things that I’m finding is that there still needs to be more public awareness, because there is a fear, there is a stigmatization that is now developing with this disease. And what they’re not hearing about messages to help them address their fear, in terms of how do you get it, how to avoid it, that, if somebody dies in their neighborhood, in their house, that they don’t have to abandon that body, and that there are things that they can do to protect themselves.

GWEN IFILL: Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald reporting for us from Haiti, thank you.< ><-->