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U.N. blasts global response to Haiti cholera outbreak as inadequate

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: The U.N. criticizes international response to cholera outbreak
  • NEW: The world body has gotten 10 percent of the donations it requested
  • The U.N. denies that its peacekeepers started the outbreak
  • Nearly 1,200 people have died, almost 50,000 have gotten medical care

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- The United Nations criticized the international response to the Haiti cholera outbreak as inadequate on Saturday, saying donors had pledged only about ten percent of the money needed to curb the disease.

Last week, the world body appealed for $164 million to help fight cholera in the impoverished Caribbean country. So far, the water-borne disease has claimed 1,186 lives, according to Haiti's health ministry. Almost 50,000 people have sought medical help; about 40 percent of those people have been hospitalized.

"Critical supplies and skills are urgently needed," Nigel Fisher, the world body's humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, said in a press release Saturday. "We need doctors, nurses, water purification systems, chlorine tablets, soap, oral rehydration salts, tents for cholera treatment centres and a range of other supplies."

Fisher said the lackluster response is especially troubling, given that "cholera is an extremely simple disease to cure." The disease can be deadly absent timely medical attention.

Haiti's first case of cholera was confirmed in late October and quickly became an outbreak that spread to eight of the nation's 10 departments, or provinces. Some angry Haitians blamed their latest misery on the very people charged with keeping the peace: the United Nations.

They have accused Nepalese soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers of bringing the bacteria from their homeland. U.N. and Nepalese officials have repeatedly denied the charge, even suggesting that the assertions were politically motivated ahead of Haiti's presidential elections.

Protests against the United Nations and Nepal spread this week, sometimes turning violent in the capital Port-au-Prince and the northern port city of Cap-Haitien.

Edmond Mulet, the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known by its French acronym MINUSTAH), told CNN on Saturday that what is important now is to confront the cholera full-force, not engage in a blame game.

"We fear that is going to be in the tens of thousands of people infected by this," Mulet said. "What we have to do now is save lives. What we need right now are doctors. What we need right now are medicines."'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, has said this particular strain of cholera originated in South Asia. But it may have come to Haiti from another part of the world, Mulet said.

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He said all the tests conducted by the United Nations, Haiti's government, and independent groups at U.N. facilities and bases in Haiti have thus far been negative.

Water samples taken last month from the Nepalese military camp in the town of Mirebalais, as well from areas adjacent to the base, tested negative for cholera, said U.N. spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese. So did water samples taken by the Haitian government from the river adjacent to the Nepalese base.

Mulet said it was possible that Nepalese soldiers had carried the bacteria to Haiti, but tests on human waste were negative and the soldiers have showed none of the symptoms of cholera, which include profuse vomiting and diarrhea.

"There is nothing conclusive," Mulet said.

The cholera has spread rapidly through Haiti, where conditions remain ripe for disease. This year's devastating earthquake exacerbated continuing problems with abject poverty, congested unsanitary living conditions and a poor health care system.

Absent a strong government, international agencies, including the United Nations, have stepped in to play key aid roles. But even with the heavy aid agency presence, some have voiced outrage at what they deem as a woefully inadequate response to the outbreak that threatens as many as 200,000 Haitians.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (in English, Doctors Without Borders) said shortfalls in resources have hampered efforts to stem the tide of disease.

"More actors are needed to treat the sick and implement preventative actions, especially as cases increase dramatically across the country," Stefano Zannini, the charitable medical group's head of mission in Haiti, said in a statement.

"There is no time left for meetings and debate -- the time for action is now," he said.

An estimated 3 million to 5 million people worldwide fall sick with cholera each year, according to the World Health Organization. Up to 80 percent of the cases are treated successfully with oral rehydration salts. But if left untreated, the acute diarrheal disease can kill within hours.

CNN's Ivan Watson, Jonathan Mann and Moni Basu contributed to this report.