On August 7, UNEARTH News published a controversial article that presented evidence by former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell that climate change factors contributed to the outbreak of cholera in Haiti.
“Climate change and cholera have a complicated link,” Colwell told UNEARTH News in the article exploring the relationship between climate change factors and the cholera epidemic in Haiti. “As far as Haiti is concerned, the disease outbreak was triggered
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by a complicated set of factors. The precipitation and temperatures were above average during 2010 and that, in conjunction with a destroyed water and sanitation infrastructure, can be considered to have contributed to this major disease outbreak.”
One day later, Steve Milloy reported on junkscience.com that Dr. Colwell’s assertions, as found in the UNEARTH News article, had been summarily debunked. “Global warming blamed for Haiti cholera epidemic…Reality: UN workers imported the bacteria,” read the headline on the anti-climate change site.
While the basis for Milloy’s claims of the UN responsibility are not clear on the anti-climate change site, Adam Houston of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti summarizes the argument for UN’s culpability succinctly in a letter refuting Colwell’s claims sent to UNEARTH News.
“There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the strain of cholera found in Haiti was introduced by a Nepalese contingent of UN peacekeepers,” Houston wrote. “There are many factors that have contributed to the ongoing threat posed by cholera in Haiti. Responsibility, however, lies with the UN, without whom cholera would not exist in Haiti in the first place.”
To stress his point Houston gave the following example: “Whether or not climate change heightened the ability of cholera to spread is once again beside the point. Consider a similar scenario where climate change has led to a particularly dry summer, leaving the land especially vulnerable to forest fires. A fire may be more destructive as a result of those conditions, but ultimate responsibility lies with whoever lit the match that started the fire, particularly where the high risk conditions were obvious before the match was lit.”
There seems little doubt that the UN peacekeepers were the fire starter in the case of cholera in Haiti, a fact supported by the UN’s own scientists, a recent report commissioned by Yale University and perhaps even Dr. Colwell’s research, which appears to concede the need for adequate precautions in the article she co-authored published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene.
“Because cholera outbreaks will continue to occur over time, the most effective means of controlling or preventing the disease is to minimize exposure to pathogenic strains and/or high concentration of cholera bacteria,” the article states.
The UN, which introduced cholera into the water through infected Nepalese workers, appear not to have done enough to minimize exposure to cholera on the earthquake ravaged island. The bacteria, which has been genetically linked to Nepalese strains, made its way into Haitian waters and has sickened 620,000 people and killed over 7,000.
The fact that they are yet to acknowledge any wrong-doing on their part and have taken the unusual measure of declaring themselves legally immune in the matter, only adds to the suspicion that the UN is at fault.
Yet lying the blame at the UN for their sloppy efforts, does not necessarily mean that climate change is not and underlying cause of the outbreak. In fact, the failure of the UN to address the climate change factors may be another indication that more could have been done and must be done in the future prevent the spread of disease, like the cholera outbreak, from occurring again.
In her comments to UNEARTH News linking climate change to the cholera epidemic, Dr. Cowell suggests that the UN did not consider climate change factors at all in relationship to Haiti even after the outbreak occurred.
“The studies from the UN did not look for any environmental connections, particularly hydroclimatic factors and local water infrastructure, to cholera and ignored the fact that cholera bacteria have tendency to grow in variety of suitable environments.”
While it will never be clear, particularly given the UN’s opacity on the matter, what might have happened if the UN had seriously considered environmental factors related to outbreak or what step was missed to avoid the bacteria’s introduction, a new study, published in Science, may help inform future international efforts and help prevent infectious disease spread.
“Future work must continue to anticipate and monitor pathogen biodiversity and disease trends in natural ecosystems and identify opportunities to mitigate the impacts of climate-driven disease emergence,” the study authors conclude after presenting evidence of increased incidence of climate-related infectious diseases worldwide which the study found in plant, animal and human species.
The study also warns that the impact of climate change will make infectious disease much harder to control making the need for preventative measures more acute as the world continues, as per the UN’s own predictions, to warm in the coming century.
“Just how much harder will it be to control disease as the climate warms?” Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies asked, stressing the need to change the focus on the debate on climate change in the future. Instead of asking if climate change is a factor in the spread of disease, Ostfield states that the real concern is the impact of the deadly mix of climate change and pathogens.
The real question for our current times, Ostfield says is “Will it be possible [to control infectious disease] at all in developing countries?”
Please view the original piece over at UNEARTH News.