Commission details action in cholera-hit Haiti

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The European Commission has defended its humanitarian action in Haiti, where an outbreak of cholera has killed at least 250 people following an earthquake in January that devastated the country's capital Port-au-Prince.

More than 3,000 cholera cases have been reported so far in the poor, earthquake-hit Caribbean nation, which is experiencing its second humanitarian crisis in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake of 12 January (see 'Background').

More than 250 people have died so far.

The main areas hit by the cholera outbreak are located far away from the camps of people left homeless following the earthquake. The centre of the epidemic is the Artibonite River watershed north of Port-au-Prince.

However, with a number of cases also confirmed in the capital and suspected cases reported in the town of L'Arcahaie and in the country's northern, second city of Cap-Haitien too, the UN is warning that the outbreak will spread geographically.

"We must gear up for a serious epidemic, even though we hope it won't happen," Nigel Fisher, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, was quoted as saying.

TV footage showed appalling conditions in hospitals in the affected areas. Lack of infrastructure, including beds, and dismal hygienic conditions are widespread, with the population growing desperate and expressing anger at the lack of foreign help.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, Ferran Tarradellas, spokesperson for EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, defended the Commission's action.

The cholera outbreak was detected quickly, Tarradellas said, adding that health personnel, both from Haiti and from the international community, had been deployed quickly too. This included Commission experts, he said, with one health expert on the ground joined on Sunday by another from the EU delegation in Managua (Nicaragua).

The EU is working with partners on the ground, in particular the Spanish Red Cross, the French Red Cross, Action contre la faim and others, he said.

The areas in which the Commission experts are active are primarily logistical, including providing tents, setting up cholera treatment centres isolated from the rest of the population, providing hygienic kits, improving water sanitation and promoting hygiene, he explained.

Since the earthquake, which killed 220,000 people and left millions homeless, there have been no other epidemics so far, Tarradellas pointed out. Since this outbreak occurred, Commission personnel have been working with the Haitian authorities and the international community to limit its spread and help those affected, he said.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and has experienced a lot of political violence throughout its history.

In February 2004, an armed rebellion forced the resignation and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A provisional government was put in place, with security provided by MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti. Réné Préval, the current president, was elected in 2006. 

Scientists said the earthquake which hit Haiti on 12 January was the strongest on Earth since 1770. The damage was high, as the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude epicentre was just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince and its two million inhabitants. 

The Haitian government reports that between 217,000 and 230,000 people died. The devastation was widespread. Vital infrastructure was destroyed, including telecommunications, every hospital in the capital, and air, sea and land communication services.

Last April, international donors, among which the largest was the EU, promised a total of 7.3 billion euros for the reconstruction of earthquake-hit Haiti at a conference in New York.

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