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Cholera vaccination will become tool in fight against epidemic in Haiti

Last week, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon announced an independent panel will be set up to investigate the cholera epidemic which has afflicted more than 91,000 people and killed over 2,500 in Haiti. Scientists recently confirmed the strain was similar to one found in Bangladesh, though there is no evidence the disease was carried to Haiti by the Nepalese UN peacekeepers blamed by many locals. However, Mr Moon admitted there are “fair questions and legitimate concerns that demand the best answer that science can provide”.

Further tests on the cholera strain in Haiti have identified how deadly and aggressive this strain of the disease is compared to other outbreaks in Latin America. The Haiti strain has three genetic mutations which make it more deadly. Two of the three mutations allow the bacteria to make a ‘classical’ variant of the cholera toxin causing effects of the disease to be more severe. The third mutation gives it the ability to replace all other strains, both in South Asia and South America. Scientists are also worried the bacteria could form new hybrids which have unpredictable properties and are supporting the call for a roll-out of cholera vaccine to Haiti before this virulent strain goes “beyond [its] shores”.

When the cholera epidemic first started in October, experts believed it might be contained without the use of vaccinations, which are difficult and expensive to distribute. Now, that thinking has been reversed. The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) has recommended vaccinations should begin in Haiti as an additional tool to controlling the disease. A stockpile of more than 1 million doses of cholera vaccine has been identified, though these doses have yet to be approved for purchase by the World Health Organisation. But that could happen in the first or second quarter next year and PAHO hopes vaccinations in Haiti could start by March or April.

In the meantime, aid agencies throughout Haiti continue their ongoing efforts to treat cholera victims with rehydration fluids and to promote awareness on disease prevention with thorough hand-washing and sanitation measures. Efforts to distribute medical supplies and treat patients have been greatly eased since violent street protests have died down following the disputed first vote in Haiti’s election. Currently, the electoral authorities are still looking into the results of the vote, but have refused to give a timeframe when the verification process will be complete. Following the violent protests, one US Senator called for aid to be suspended to Haiti until a “fair and democratic outcome to the elections” had been achieved. However, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Haiti’s politicians to heed the Senators remarks, no action has yet been taken by the US to halt its aid. Bill Clinton, former President and the Secretary’s husband, is currently a UN special envoy to Haiti. In response to the Senator’s call, Mr Clinton agreed that “legitimate questions” had been raised about the voting, but “it would be a mistake to stop the reconstruction”. However, Mr Clinton also warned that Haiti needed to “get off the humanitarian train onto the self-support train”. But this will only happen if peace and stability are brought to this troubled island, which desperately needs a secure environment where education and investment can thrive. Only then will Haiti’s people be afforded the opportunities to help themselves build a better future.

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