(Reuters) - Evidence strongly suggests U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source of a cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed more than 5,500 people, according to a new report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The epidemic was one of the most explosive and deadly in recent history, the report said, hitting a country reeling from a January 2010 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 300,000 and shattered the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Cases of cholera first emerged in central Haiti's Artibonite River region in October and many Haitians said the disease came from the peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic.
That belief sparked anti-U.N. riots last year in the poor Caribbean nation and it posed a serious political problem for U.N. authorities who already had a peacekeeping force in Haiti and deployed a massive aid effort after the earthquake.
"Our findings strongly suggest that contamination of the Artibonite and one of its tributaries downstream from a military camp triggered the epidemic," said the report.
"There was an exact correlation in time and places between the arrival of a Nepalese battalion from an area experiencing a cholera outbreak and the appearance of the first cases in Meille a few days after," the report released on Tuesday said.
"The remoteness of Meille in central Haiti and the absence of report of other incomers (newcomers) make it unlikely that a cholera strain might have been brought there another way," said the report, whose authors include French infectious and tropical diseases expert Renaud Piarroux.
The report was published in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the CDC. It appeared on the Atlanta-based agency's website.
DNA evidence suggests the disease was introduced from a distant source by a single event, the report said.
The United Nations is "very concerned" about the outbreak of cholera in Haiti and will study the report's findings, said a statement from Michel Bonnardeaux, spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping.
In a separate commentary, CDC scientists Scott Dowell and Christopher Braden said the report provided "circumstantial evidence that fecal contamination of a local stream draining into the Artibonite River initiated the epidemic."
"We have not concluded that Nepalese peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti," Dowell told Reuters, adding that the study's conclusions tallied with a U.N. report in May.
That report pointed to fecal contamination by a riverside U.N. peacekeepers' camp as a likely cause.
But the four-member U.N.-appointed panel, named by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in January, avoided apportioning any direct blame or responsibility to U.N. peacekeepers, citing "a confluence of circumstances" behind the epidemic.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York)
(Editing by Xavier Briand)