Terror over a fast-spreading cholera epidemic has triggered a violent witch hunt in rural Haiti in which locals have murdered at least 12 neighbors on accusations they used “black magic” to infect people, police said on Thursday.
The fast-killing infection is new to Haiti and there is widespread confusion and fear about the disease. In less than six weeks since the first-ever case was confirmed in the country’s rural center, nearly 1,900 people have died and more than 84,000 been infected.
Rumors began to spread last week in the remote southwestern Grand Anse region, where the first cases of cholera are only now being seen, that voodoo practitioners had fashioned a magic powder to spread the infection.
Machete-wielding mobs have since lynched and killed a dozen people accused of practicing such witchcraft, burning the bodies of their victims, national police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said.
Voodoo is a widely held faith in Haiti that combines elements of African religion with Roman Catholic Christianity. It includes deeply held tenets of magic, both good and evil, and its priests are especially influential in rural populations.
In response to the killings, the government in Port-au-Prince issued a statement on Thursday imploring: “Cholera is a microbe … The only way to protect one’s self against cholera is to observe the principles of hygiene.”
“There is no cholera powder, nor cholera zombie, nor cholera spirit” and voodoo priests “can neither treat cholera, nor make a powder that gives cholera,” it said.
Confusion over how the disease spreads has also prompted attacks on cholera-treatment centers.
The origins of Haiti’s cholera epidemic have not been proven.
Public health experts believe the bacteria, which matches a South Asian strain, was imported from a cholera-endemic country. Much speculation has centered on a base of UN peacekeepers from Nepal with documented sanitation problems which was located on the river where the outbreak began.
Riots against the UN peacekeepers broke out last month in the country’s north and chants linking politicians with the epidemic have become standard at anti-government protests around Sunday’s disputed presidential election.