- Associated Press - Friday, December 17, 2010

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - 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.”

“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.

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