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Haiti cholera outbreak: blame game begins

Did aid organizations prevent a epidemic? Or did they fail to stop a deadly disease?

Haiti cholera outbreak
Residents of a camp for displaced Haitians fill jugs with clean water, Oct. 26, 2010. An outbreak of cholera has killed nearly 300 people. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Nine days into a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 303 and infected more than 4,700, Haitians are holding their breath and waiting to see if the outbreak can be stopped.

Haiti’s humanitarian relief organizations are posed to call their response to the outbreak a success, pointing to the quick mobilization of doctors to affected areas and sufficient stockpiles of IV bags. So far the disease hasn't spread through Haiti’s tent camps where 1.3 million people still live, and the organizations are hopeful they'll soon be able to contain the outbreak.

But critics say Haiti’s gruesome brush with cholera represents a failure by these groups whose job is to prevent exactly this type of disaster in the first place.

There’s one thing everyone agrees on: If cholera were to enter Port-au-Princes tent camps, the epidemic would explode.

“Should it arrive in a camp without any toilets or clean drinking water, there’s no way to stop it,” said York College professor Mark Schuller.

But the cholera epidemic didn’t start in the unsanitary and crowded tent camps of the earthquake-ravaged region. Instead, it came from a rural, rice-farming area where life for most residents continued much the same as it was before the earthquake.

David Olson, medical adviser for Doctors Without Borders, said it's unfair to blame relief organizations for Haiti’s longstanding underdevelopment problems, such as the 40 percent of Haitians who don’t have access to clean water and the 80 percent without proper sanitation, including toilets and soap.

“It’d be a little harsh to judge that we’re not providing clean water in the rest of the country,” Olson said. “That’s an ongoing development issue.”

Residents of Haiti’s Grand Saline community, where at least 74 people have died from cholera, say they drink water directly from the Artibonite River — which tested positive for cholera last week — because there is nowhere to buy treated water in the area.

The coordinator for Haiti’s international humanitarian relief, Nigel Fisher, said the swift response by aid organizations showed they were well-prepared to handle the outbreak from the beginning.

“There were sufficient supplies of the critical elements needed: oral rehydration salts, the transfusion solution needed, the antibiotics,” Fisher said.

To stop the disease before it reaches other parts of the country, medical nongovernmental organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, are setting up temporary clinics in the hardest-hit areas so patients don’t need to travel as far. Other humanitarian groups like the Red Cross are broadcasting public service announcements over radio and sending text messages to advise people how to prevent the spread of cholera.