Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Cholera: Problem Solved?

Once again I’m grateful to H5N1 for bringing cholera news to my attention.   This week, epidemiologists from France have presented evidence suggesting that the Haitian cholera outbreak began when the causative bacteria were brought in by Nepalese UN troops.

In an article in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, just out, Piarroux and colleagues assert that (quoting from their abstract) “Our findings strongly suggest that contamination of the Artibonite [River] and 1 of its tributaries downstream from a military camp triggered the epidemic.”

So the mystery is solved, more or less.  The news media have taken note:  articles on the EID report have already been written by the AP, Guardian, and other sources, and are being picked up fairly widely today.

The news, based on a report ordered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,  is being treated as an about-face on the UN’s part — because the organization, along with WHO and CDC, refused last fall to do an in-depth investigation of the origin of the outbreak.  So, according to the media’s coverage, this week’s report exposes some hypocrisy on the part of the health organizations.

That’s silly, and wrong.   I’m usually critical of WHO and CDC, but in the case of the Haitian outbreak they were completely correct to refuse to “investigate.”  As I wrote last fall, cholera isn’t a detective story, it’s a disaster.  To investigate the so-called origin of an outbreak that is as self-evidently the result of  calamitous conditions, state poverty, and helpless officialdom is to shift the blame.  Dodge the truth.

The work by Piarroux and colleagues in establishing a clear description of the origin and progress of the Haitian outbreak is impressive, often elegant, quite convincing.  But to believe, as some do, that it somehow proves that the UN and WHO are responsible for a catastrophe, or that sending foreigners into Haiti is always bad, or even that (as the authors of the EID paper say)

Putting an end to the controversy over the cholera origin could ease prevention and treatment by decreasing the distrust associated with the widespread suspicions of a cover-up of a deliberate importation of cholera

is to misunderstand public health.

The problem in Haiti is, and has been, a problem of predisposition — nature out of balance, people on the move, dire straits of all kinds (food, medicine, clean water, toilets, housing, etc.)  too tolerable to weak leaders.  Colonization by one aid group after another (UN included).  It was inevitable that cholera was going to break out.

To take the Piarroux report as definitive is to mistake the germ for the disease, mistake the outbreak for the problem, mistake the detective story for the real disaster — the real disaster being self-explanatory and not in need of “investigation”:  not enough money and not enough political will to keep the public from getting sick.

Cholera: A Shame, Not a Whodunit

Titling Maggie Fox’s article on the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak “Whodunnit?,” Reuters makes distraction the main attraction.

Finger pointing about the “cause” of the outbreak — finger pointing at Nepalese peace keepers, the UN mission, relief workers, or Haitian health workers — is a way of avoiding the fundamental problem:  insufficient political will to create working infrastructure for poor countries.  Haiti being the leading example, the cholera outbreak being the case study.

Given how shaky the living arrangements have been for many Haitians since the January earthquake, given the pre-existing destitution and the anemia of efforts to fix that, it’s a tribute to the Haitian health system that cholera didn’t break out until October.  It might have been much sooner.

But now that cholera is spreading, it seems that more energy is going into using the outbreak to whip up political animus in, and about, Haiti than to figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This week, the politicization of the cholera outbreak seems to get worse by the day (Crawford Kilian’s cholera coverage at H5N1 continues to keep abreast of both the cholera outbreak and the political uses it’s being put to).   I talked to John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee about this on The Takeaway yesterday, pointing out that the problem is social crisis, not Nepalese troops.  It’s poverty, lack of adequate sanitation, poor access to clean water — not foreigners.

Here’s the segment of The Takeaway:

In contrast to the misleading headline of Reuters’ piece, what Ms. Fox covers is not the (pseudo) mystery of “who brought cholera to Haiti?”  It’s the effort by CDC, the Haitian health ministry, and PAHO to determine whether the outbreak likely started from a single source or multiple ones.

The findings are reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week:  Haitian cases all carried Vibrio cholerae of the O1 serogroup, serotype Ogawa (a very common strain), with DNA of a single pulse-field gel electrophoresis pattern.  Because of the propensity for mutation or recombination events in the reproduction of bacteria, it would be extremely unlikely for different people to be carrying bacteria with the identical PFGE pattern unless they had all been exposed to an identical strain.  [N.B.  Strictly speaking, cholera is not an infection:  the illness results from poisoning by V. cholera in the intestine, not from actual infection of tissue.  Therefore I write “exposed to” rather than “infected by.”]

Based on the findings so far, CDC and its partners concludes that the outbreak probably began with a single strain.

Did this strain arrive in cholera recently, or has it been around for some time and only recently came to attention as a cause of mass morbidity and mortality?  Did it arrive in a person and contaminate the environment via feces, or arrive in food or water?  Was there a single initiating exposure, or did cholera arrive inside multiple people or food items?  As Fox points out, the study can’t answer these questions.

It makes sense to seek information on how the outbreak got started in order to plan for better systems to prevent future outbreaks.  CDC is on the right track here.

But by calling this a whodunit, Reuters is pandering to people who want to inflame tempers, not spreading information about what can be done to make Haiti healthier.  Shame on you, Reuters.

In the mouth of death

The Miami Herald‘s article yesterday on cholera reaching Port-au-Prince quotes a homeless resident of the Haitian capital, fearful at the approach of the disease:  “Of course I’m scared — we’re in the mouth of death.”

Haiti today: in the mouth of death.  Not just Haiti, of course.  Deadly, gruesome, and hard to stop, cholera seems emblematic of the many failures that preceded the earthquake and have been exacerbated since.  We Americans are paying attention to Haiti lately — because of the earthquake; because of proximity; or because however bad things are here, what with high unemployment and poor economic prospects, Haiti conveniently reminds us of what we’re not.  But really much of the world, of the dollar-a-day world, is in the mouth of death much of the time.

With cholera, the relief agencies are hard at work.  Ansel Herz, a freelance journalist who blogs at Mediahacker, writes that there have been five cholera deaths in Port-au-Prince as of this morning, although the authorities say those people came to the capital from elsewhere and that cholera isn’t yet spreading in Port-au-Prince.  Still, cholera mortality is over 200 nationally.   Herz describes the earnest efforts of aid workers.  But his reportage, along with that of the Miami Herald, the NY Times, and others, also reveals the shortcomings of relying on aid organizations to contain the complex problems — of which cholera is the latest.

Partners in Health, to my mind the most earnest and committed of the aid organizations, is compiling reports on the spread of cholera and, of course, trying to do something about it.  But here’s the problem: if it’s the aid workers who are trying to stop cholera, it’s too late.  I don’t mean that they’ll fail; I mean that there should have been infrastructure in place to make sure cholera doesn’t break out at all.  And if there’s no such infrastructure, cholera will happen again, however well it’s halted this time.

It’s hard to escape the image, provided by Herz, of a new water tank installed near Cité Soleil by the International Organization for Migration — which stands empty, because nobody has provided clean water to fill it.

This is the problem with aid:  of course there must be organizations, like Partners in Health or MSF, that provide relief to the suffering.  But if there’s no support, or demand, for permanent public health infrastructure, the aid workers will always be scrambling to keep up with crises, and the crises won’t stop happening.

In the New Yorker this month, Philip Gourevitch takes a skeptical view of humanitarian aid (abstract here; full article requires subscription).  He summarizes the message of Dutch journalist Linda Polman sympathetically:

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them – no way to act without having a political effect.

Now, Gourevitch is talking specifically about crises created by political conflict.  But something of this dilemma pervades the problem of relief.  Public health is political.  It takes political will — not just oral rehydration therapy — to install water supplies and sewage systems, and housing with running water even for the poor.

Canada is going to send a million dollars to Haiti to help with the cholera problem (thanks to Crof at H5N1 for picking that up).  No doubt the U.S. will outdo its neighbor in looking mournful and concerned, and donating even more money.  But where’s the support for good government, and real public health, and necessary infrastructure?

What are we doing to promote the implementation of good public health? What are we doing to generate the political will to install even just the ordinary civil engineering works that we take for granted in America, but which would make a difference to the people who are living in the mouth of death?