Jessica Brehmer: Contaminated Water Leads to Cholera Outbreak in Haiti

Jessica is currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and is employed by the Minnesota Department of Health.  She has a BA in Geography from the University of Minnesota and is a former geography intern with NGS.

For the past month a cholera epidemic has torn through Haiti – a country still trying to get back on its feet after a devastating earthquake earlier this year. Over 500 people have died and thousands more have fell ill to the disease. Cholera is caused by bacteria and is passed by consuming contaminated water or food.  Cholera can cause severe diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms.

Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the strain of cholera currently affecting Haiti to a strain commonly seen in south Asia. Their scientists matched the patterns of DNA in cholera in Haiti to cholera typically seen in southern Asia. Wait, what?!  Yes, you read that right. Somehow this strain of cholera traveled thousands of miles from Asia to Haiti. So how did bacteria found in Asia end up in Haiti?  Although we may never know with certainty, we can make some good guesses.

In the wake of the earthquake people from around the world came to Haiti bringing food, medical supplies and hopes of rebuilding Haiti. It is probable that cholera traveled with these humanitarian efforts to Haiti. Right now most of the conjecture points to United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal as the source of the epidemic. A possible scenario is that one of the peacekeepers had the cholera bacteria in their stool and unknowingly contaminated a water source.

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