Relief efforts more likely to cause disease than disasters themselves

Scott Sutherland
Geekquinox
January 7, 2013

Disease outbreaks, such as cholera, are commonly thought to happen after earthquakes and other natural disasters, but studies have found no evidence to support this. And the persistence of this belief may be hurting relief efforts.

The devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was followed by a deadly cholera outbreak. Many saw this as an inevitable outcome of the disaster, as poor sanitary conditions combined with numerous dead bodies and survivors housed in cramped quarters to produce an incubator for deadly diseases.

“It’s what all of us worried about when we arrived in Haiti just hours after the quake,” said NBC's Brian Williams, according to Popular Science. “Beyond the death toll, the inevitable spread of disease.”

However, a forensic analysis of the outbreak has shown that it had very little to do with either the earthquake or the conditions in Haiti afterwards.

The spread of the disease was traced back to a small military base, that was built years before, and its faulty sanitation system that allowed human fecal matter to pollute the nearby river. Analysis of the strain of Vibrio cholerae that swept through the Haitian population showed that it was identical to the one that was infecting people in Nepal, where some of the soldiers at the base were stationed before they joined the Haiti relief efforts.

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The problem with the belief in the 'inevitability' of the outbreak, according to what journalist and author Jonathan M. Katz wrote in his PopSci article, is "most journalists and responders shrugged off cholera as a natural product of the disaster. 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 added.

"Conditioned to look for a problem that wasn’t there, responders ignored the greatest public health threat of all: themselves."

(Reuters photo)