United Nations Sued for Role In Haitian Cholera Epidemic

By Kim Smiley

A class action law suit has been filed against the United Nations (U.N.) on behalf of Haitian families afflicted by the cholera epidemic that has been raging since 2010.  Many believe that cholera was inadvertently brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeeping forces.

Some of the basic facts are still debated, but one that is known is that Haiti is experiencing the worst cholera epidemic in modern history with thousands of new cases each month. Nearly 7 percent of the Haitian population has had cholera since 2010.  It’s estimated that around 8,400 people have died of cholera and more than 685,000 have been sickened by the disease.

So why is the U.N. being blamed for this epidemic? A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to explain what many believe occurred.  All causes that contributed to an issue are captured on the Cause Map, which illustrates the cause-and-effect relationships between them.  In this case, people became infected with cholera after drinking contaminated river water.  Many believe that the river was contaminated when sewage leaked from a U.N. camp near the river with inadequate sanitation facilities.  U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were stationed at the camp and cholera, specifically a nearly identical strain of cholera, was present in Nepal at the time.  It’s assumed that at least one person in the camp had cholera and dangerous wastes managed to contaminate the river. The cholera epidemic seems to be a deadly case of unintended consequences that occurred when the U.N. attempted to aid Haiti following a devastating earthquake.

Once cholera got a foothold in Haiti, the epidemic exploded.  The population had little immunity to the disease because a case hadn’t been seen in Haiti in over a century prior to 2010.  Haiti lacked the sanitation and medical facilities to quickly contain a cholera epidemic.  People continued to drink water from the river because there weren’t many other options. The country had also suffered major damage from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit on January 12, 2010.  Medical facilities, transport facilities, communication systems and all the things a country needs to battle an epidemic had been significantly impacted by the earthquake.  Basically, it was a perfect recipe for a disaster.   A sick U.N. soldier may have brought cholera to Haiti, but the conditions in the country amplified the situation.

The world is still struggling to understand the cholera epidemic and determine what lessons learned should be applied going forward.  Clearly there is something to learn about the need for sufficient sanitation so that illness doesn’t spread unnecessarily.  The U.N. may potentially want to screen troops more closely before stationing them on foreign soil or implement other changes to help prevent anything like this from occurring in the future.  It’s also a powerful reminder to be aware and on the lookout for unintended consequences whenever a solution is implemented.  For example, the U.N has always had legal immunity, but some believe that may change as a result of the cholera lawsuit.   It’s impossible to predict if a verdict against the U.N. would impact future U.N. aid efforts, but it’s easy to imagine that it could have damping effect on their efforts, causing a whole other wave of unintended consequences to occur.

To view a high level Cause Map of the cholera epidemic in Haiti, click on “Download PDF” above.