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Originally published Friday, December 17, 2010 at 9:54 AM

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UN panel to investigate Haiti cholera outbreak

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the establishment of an international scientific panel Friday to investigate the source of the deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed more than 2,400 people.

Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS —

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the establishment of an international scientific panel Friday to investigate the source of the deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed more than 2,400 people.

The U.N. chief told a news conference that he was creating the independent panel to make a determination since there are several different theories about the origin of the outbreak.

There has been widespread speculation in Haiti that the outbreak started at a base for U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal not far from where hundreds of Haitians began falling ill. U.N. officials rejected any idea the base was involved, saying its sanitation was airtight.

"There remain fair questions and legitimate concerns that demand the best answer that science can provide," Ban said. "We want to make the best effort to get to the bottom of this and find answers that the people of Haiti deserve."

He said that was why, in consultation with Dr. Margaret Chan who heads the World Health Organization, he was setting up the panel.

Ban said the panel will include epidemiologist and microbiologists and he hopes to announce its members "as soon as possible."

"The panel will be completely independent and have full access to all U.N. premises and personnel," he said.

The cholera outbreak, which experts estimate could affect more than 600,000 people in the impoverished Caribbean nation, involves the first confirmed cases of the disease in Haiti since WHO began keeping records in the mid-20th century.

The secretary-general stressed that the U.N.'s first priority continues to be saving lives.

Ban called on the international community to urgently provide additional funds, doctors, nurses and medical supplies to fight the epidemic. He noted that the U.N. appeal seeking $164 million to curb the spread of cholera which was launched last month is only 21 percent funded.

Efforts to fight cholera are taking place as Haiti struggles to deal with a disputed presidential election on Nov. 28.

Ban expressed concern about allegations of fraud in the election and urged all candidates and their supporters "to remain calm and refrain from violence."

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"We will continue to support free and fair elections that reflect the will of the Haitian people," he said.

Soon after the cholera outbreak became evident in October, Haitians began questioning whether it started at a U.N. base in Meille, outside the central plateau town of Mirebalais and upriver from where hundreds were getting sick. Speculation pointed to recently arrived peacekeepers from Nepal, a South Asia nation where cholera is endemic.

WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the time that it was unlikely the origin would ever be known, and that pinning it down was not a priority.

Then the Associated Press found not only sanitation problems at the base, but that the U.N. mission was quietly taking samples from behind the post to test for cholera.

When the CDC determined the strain in Haiti matched one in South Asia, cholera and global health experts said there was enough circumstantial evidence implicating the likely unwitting Nepalese soldiers to warrant an aggressive investigation.

The experts have also said there are important scientific reasons to trace the origin of the outbreak, including learning how the disease spreads, how it can best be combatted and what danger countries around Haiti could face in the coming months and years.

The cholera outbreak, which experts estimate could affect more than 600,000 people in the impoverished Caribbean nation, involves the first confirmed cases of the disease in Haiti since WHO records began in the mid-20th century.

It has already spread to the neighboring Dominican Republic, and isolated cases have been found in the United States.

Many think the U.N. mission's reticence to seriously address the allegations in public helped fuel anti-peacekeeper riots that broke out across Haiti last month.

French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux argues that "no other hypothesis" from the Nepalese being the origin could explain his findings that cases of the diarrheal disease first appeared near the U.N. base in Haiti's rural center, far from shipping ports and the area affected by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Alternate hypotheses include that the disease was introduced by environmental factors, or had been dormant in Haiti's soil.

Cholera is spread by contaminated fecal matter. Health experts say it can be easily treated with rehydration or prevented outright by ensuring good sanitation and getting people to drink only purified water.

But after years of instability, and despite decades of development projects, many Haitians have little access to clean water, toilets or health care.

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