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Post-Disaster Disease Myth Diverted Attention From Cholera Outbreak Following Haiti Earthquake

“Few post-disaster myths have a stronger hold on our imaginations than the specter of a follow-on epidemic … But we can all take a deep, healthy breath: It’s not true,” Jonathan Katz, a journalist stationed in Haiti, writes in a PopSci opinion piece. “But myths have their price. And nowhere has the price of this particular myth been higher than in Haiti,” he continues. Noting the third anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that struck the nation, Katz writes, “No less a luminary than Bill Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti, warned in early 2010 that diarrheal disease sparked by squalid conditions could prove a ‘second round of death.’” He continues, “In fact, there was a second catastrophic round of death in Haiti that year: an epidemic, no less. But that epidemic — a virulent outbreak of El Tor cholera — had nothing to do with the earthquake at all.”

“Rather, cholera was almost definitely introduced into Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers in October 2010,” Katz says, noting “there had never been a confirmed case of cholera in Haiti before that outbreak, ever.” And “[t]hat’s where the epidemic myth came in,” he writes, adding, “The attitude made epidemiologists and aid workers less likely to seek out the source of what was in fact a particular infection not only new to Haiti, but the entire hemisphere. And it has since continued to provide cover for the United Nations as advocates press for reparations, and public health experts try to reform the peacekeeping system to prevent such a catastrophic error from happening again.” He concludes, “In Haiti, where cholera has claimed 7,800 lives and counting, becoming a permanent feature of the landscape, the diversion has proven particularly ironic. Conditioned to look for a problem that wasn’t there, responders ignored the greatest public health threat of all: themselves” (1/7).