cholera definition

What do typhoid fever, dysentery, salmonella, and cholera have in common? They are four of the most prevalent waterborne diseases afflicting hundreds of millions of people every year, listing diarrhea as the main symptom.

On its face, this might not sound like a serious issue. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), for children under the age of five, diarrhea is the leading cause of death, killing around 525,000 children every year. That’s more than malaria, measles, and AIDS combined.

For many, diarrhea is more than a minor inconvenience. This symptom can last for several days, depleting the body of vital water and salts that are necessary to survival. Typically, diarrhea indicates an intestinal tract infection caused by various bacterial, viral, and parasitic organisms spread through contaminated food and drinking water, poor sanitation, or unsafe hygiene. 

Every year, waterborne diseases affect hundreds of millions of people, mainly those living without safe, accessible water — such as residents in disaster-stricken areas or developing countries. And while it may seem like an antiquated threat, in recent years, cholera has seen a particular resurgence in areas such as Haiti, Yemen, and Nigeria.


What Is Cholera?

Cholera is an acute, infectious, diarrheal illness of the intestine, typically contracted from infected water supplies. Severe cases can trigger so much diarrhea and vomiting that patients experience catastrophic fluid loss, resulting in dehydration so severe that their internal organs shut down. Without treatment, death can occur within hours. 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 2.9 million cases and 95,000 deaths from cholera still occur globally every year.

Cholera does not usually spread directly from one person to another, so casual contact does not put another individual at risk. Rather, in a cholera epidemic, the source of contamination is typically from the feces of an infected person that has contaminated water or food. This can then spread rapidly because of inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water, poor sanitation, and insufficient hygiene. 


How Is Cholera Treated?

Treating cholera by immediately replacing lost fluids and salts is the most simple and successful treatment, especially when the patient has severe diarrhea. The most common oral rehydration solution (ORS) is drinking large amounts of a prepackaged sugar and salt solution mixed with one liter of safely filtered water. There are times that a case will be severe and require intravenous fluid replacement. While antibiotics can diminish and shorten the severity of the illness, they are not nearly as important as rehydration. When patients receive prompt rehydration, fewer than 1% die. 


What Are the Origins of Cholera?

The first origins of cholera were recorded in India and began spreading throughout the West in the early 1800s. Russia, western Europe, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were all hit as global trade and traveling by ship became more commonplace. As cholera made its way across the globe, it killed millions of people, with a fatality rate of about 50%.

At the time, there was much speculation and theorizing on the source of this disease. Suggested causes included foul air rising from the sewers and piles of rotting trash, poison from the soil, overcrowded urban areas, or even some form of religious retribution. Only years later was the true contamination pinpointed.


The Legend of John Snow

These days, the name John Snow might conjure a different sort of hero, but in the 1850s English doctor John Snow was credited with figuring out that a cholera outbreak in the Soho neighborhood of London was linked to a single drinking source. Legend has it that the outbreak had already claimed over 10,000 victims across London, but once Snow took the handle off the Broad Street water pump, the number of new cholera cases dwindled to the single digits within days. 

Later it was discovered that this particular public well had been dug three feet from an old cesspit. A used cloth diaper from a baby that had contracted cholera washed into this cesspit, thus spreading the disease amongst the rest of the residents who received their water from the Broad Street pump.

Snow’s findings inspired fundamental changes in the sanitation of the water and waste systems in London and a significant improvement of general public health around the world.


Is Cholera Still an Issue?

Unfortunately, in some parts of the world that lack access to safe water and sanitation, cholera is still a real and prevalent threat.

In 2010, ten months after a devastating earthquake that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, Haiti experienced its first cholera outbreak in over a century. By the end of 2011, over 500,000 reported infections and over 7,000 deaths had spread across the island, affecting both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Currently, Yemen is also facing its largest cholera epidemic of modern times, which surged in 2016 and continues today with over a million reported cases and more than 3,000 deaths. This problem is mainly due to the longstanding civil war in the region, resulting in more than two million displaced individuals and refugees who live in unsanitary squalid conditions. The situation is complicated further by unfavorable weather conditions, chronic malnutrition, and a dire lack of basic amenities.

When sanitation and waste management systems are damaged and not properly managed, waste materials can easily leach into the groundwater and contaminate surface water sources and vegetables. This is especially significant in Yemen since they only have ten water treatment centers and a major shortage of potable water.

Nigeria is also facing an outbreak that has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 3,000 people have died from waterborne illness, yet only half of this amount has died from COVID-19. The areas of Nigeria that have been hit the worst by the most recent cholera outbreak are the states in the north reaches of the country, which experience the most flooding and have poor sanitation. According to government data from 2020, only 14% of the population in Nigeria has access to safely managed drinking water supply services, and 30% of the residents still practice open defecation. Because of these unsafe and unhealthy conditions, Nigeria also continues to experience regular outbreaks of measles, Lassa fever, yellow fever, and other infectious diseases.

In the United States, the water-related spread of cholera has been largely eliminated by modern water and sewage treatment systems, with only a handful of cases reported each year. However, individuals traveling from areas with cholera outbreaks can be exposed to the bacteria and not develop any symptoms until returning home.


How Can I Avoid Contracting Cholera?

WHO approved three vaccines to be administered in areas where cholera is spreading, but these vaccines are not available or necessary in the United States. While you may want to receive a vaccine if you are traveling to an affected area, they are not 100% effective and are not a substitute for standard preventative measures, such as:

  • Drink water that is bottled, boiled, or chemically treated. Check to ensure the seal has not been broken. Avoid fountain drinks, tap water, and ice cubes.
  • Use bottled, boiled, or chemically treated water to wash dishes, wash and prepare food, make ice, or brush your teeth.
  • Wash your hands with soap and clean water, especially before eating or preparing food and after using the restroom.
  • Try to eat foods that are packaged or are freshly cooked and served hot.
  • Practice good restroom hygiene to prevent contaminating water or food sources.


The Science of Water

With all the advancements of modern life, it can be all too easy to take our clean water for granted. Thankfully, the United States has eradicated waterborne cholera, but there are still dangerous contaminants in our drinking water. Even when water is treated at the local municipal facility, it still has to travel through pipes to get into your home. These pipes can be laden with bacteria and heavy metals that can be detrimental to your health over time.

Fortunately,  The Science of Water is here to ensure a clean, safe water source with our free water test. Our experts will evaluate the results and offer expert recommendations towards water safety in your home. Based on your water quality, we can also determine whether a whole house water filtration system works best for you and your family’s needs.

At The Science of Water, we proudly use Puronics drinking water systems to provide you with high filtered, crystal clear water for cooking, washing, cleaning, and of course, drinking. Our systems are eco-friendly and cost-effective as an alternative to the expense of bottled water.

Of all Earth’s resources, clean water is one of the most important. Contact us for your free water test today, and feel confident that you are supplying safe and clean water for your entire family.



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