Haiti Cholera Finding Shows Need for Ethics, Responsibility

A Duke professor says a recent report linking a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti to the presence of a UN peacekeeping force is alarming.

Deborah Jenson, professor of French and Romance Studies

A recent report linking a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti to the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force there illuminates the importance of public health and ecological responsibility, a Duke professor says.

Deborah Jenson, a professor of French and Romance Studies who has studied the spread of cholera in 19th century Haiti, said the accidental U.N. introduction of that disease shows the importance of following strict ethical guidelines.

The ethical adage "primum non nocere" --"first, do no harm"-- is as essential in peacekeeping, or any other international intervention, as in medicine," Jenson says.

A group of scientists recently concluded that the cholera outbreak following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was most likely caused, accidentally, by peacekeepers who set up a camp in Haiti to help with relief efforts. Waste from showers and toilets used by the U.N. peacekeepers ran to an open septic pit not far from people and animals, according to published reports.

The U.N. needs to take the matter seriously, Jenson urges.

"Beginning in October of 2010, Haitians complained about the cholera introduction to journalists, took to the streets, engaged in political protest but were ignored," she says. "Refusal to seriously entertain complaints that turned out to be well-founded has given a very different moral tenor to the role of the UN. Its peacekeeping presence in Haiti should engage in immediately help where it can, including helping cholera patients get to treatment facilities, which are often far from where the cholera flare-ups occur."

Jenson has worked extensively on issues related to Haiti. View a TEDxDuke talk on the topic here.