What completely preventable disease can kill someone in a matter of hours through dehydration and is caused by contaminated water and food?

The answer?  Cholera. And it’ is ravaging the Caribbean nation of Haiti as I write.

Earlier this week, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced in a monthly bulletin that health officials in Haiti recorded 77 new cases of cholera per day in early March, when the annual rainy season began, and the disease begins its usual downward spiral.

Seventy-seven cases per day may sound like a lot - and it is - but in June 2011, aid workers were seeing over 1,000 cases per day, according to the Associated Press. Partners in Health said the number of cholera cases nearly tripled from almost 19,000 in April 2011 to more than 50,000 in June of the same year.

Medical teams are trying to stop the spread of the disease, but without central co-ordination or salaries paid to those working in cholera treatment facilities, it is an uphill battle, says the U.N. Partners in Health wants to distribute a cholera vaccine, but the effort is being held up while an ethics committee decides whether to allow it.

cholera preventionHaiti is considered to have the largest cholera outbreak in the world, killing over 7,000 people and sickening another 530,000, health officials say.

It is now believed that the disease was introduced to Haiti by a U.N. peace-keeping unit from Nepal, when Nepalese peace-keepers arrived in the country to help clean up several months after the January 2010 earthquake.

The Associated Press did an investigation, alongside a team from Harvard and a French-led team of epidemiologists, to try to pinpoint the cause of the cholera outbreak. The investigation found a slew of evidence that showed the U.N. base as the source of the outbreak. Even Bill Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, seemed to admit as much when asked who was to blame for the outbreak.

The New York Times also wrote a cover story pointing fingers at the U.N. It is a terrible tragedy when those sent to help actually do more harm than good.

Now the question is: will anyone be held accountable?

The reality is: probably not. As Bill Clinton said: “No, but maybe next time”.

Next time could come sooner than any of us wants to believe. The key is that when it does we need to ensure that the aid workers and peace-keepers we send into a country are not harboring diseases themselves that could afflict the local population.

Maybe next time, the U.N. will follow its own recommendations from the U.N. panel report of May 2011, which singled out the peace-keepers and recommended that the U.N. change its rules so that another half a million people don’t have to suffer from a potentially deadly disease.

(Photo © Partners in Health)