What is cholera? Symptoms, definition, vaccine and treatment of the waterborne disease

CHOLERA is the potentially deadly condition caused by drinking dirty water or eating contaminated food.

Here’s all you need to know about the bacterial infection caused by poor sanitation.

Patients being treated for cholera at a hospital in Kenya. It is a bacterial infection of the small intestine that if left untreated can be fatal

What is cholera?

Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine that is spread through dirty water and food that has been contaminated with an infected person’s faeces.

Once infected, people start to experience symptoms of the disease within a few days and if left untreated – it can prove fatal.

Cholera is most widespread in places across the globe where there is poor sanitation such as sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean and Central America.

There also tends to be outbreaks after natural disasters or during a humanitarian crisis, where people are forced to live in cramped conditions with little access to clean drinking water.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to four million people are infected every year, with it killing up to 143,000.

However, there have not been any cases of cholera that have originated in England and Wales for over 100 years.

What are the symptoms of cholera?

As the cholera infection attacks the small intestine, one of the most common symptoms of the condition is severe, watery, diarrhoea.

It can also cause nausea and vomiting and people also complain of experiencing stomach cramps.

A small child in Yemen is treated for the disease. It can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting
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It can take between 12 hours and 5 days for a person to show symptoms after ingesting contaminated food or water.

If at this point the disease isn’t treated, the symptoms will get worse and a person can become severely dehydrated very quickly.

Once this happens, there can also be a sudden drop in blood pressure, which can prove fatal if the major organs begin to shut down.

What is the treatment for cholera?

Despite the condition being potentially fatal, cholera is easily treatable.

The most common treatment for cholera patients is an oral rehydration solution, which can prevent a person becoming too dehydrated.

The solution comes in the form of a sachet of a mixture of salt and glucose, which is mixed with clean water.

The patient then drinks the solution and it replaces any fluids a person has lost through sickness and diarrhoea.

Sachets are easily available from shops and if travelling to affected areas, experts advise taking them with you.

If a person is severely dehydrated, intravenous saline drips and antibiotics may be prescribed to speed up recovery.

The disease is spread by dirty water and there are often outbreaks in places where there are humanitarian disasters

Is there a vaccine against cholera?

There is a vaccine against cholera, although it is not usually given as hygiene precautions are usually enough to prevent the infection.

However, the vaccine is given to people such as aid workers and armed forces, who may have to travel to areas where there is a cholera outbreak.

The vaccine is given in the form of a liquid, where it is mixed with water and then taken orally.

For everyone over the age of six, two doses of the vaccine should be given six weeks apart and at least one week before travelling to an infected area.

The vaccine cannot be given to those under the age of two, pregnant or breastfeeding women or people with an immune system condition.

It is thought to be about 85 per cent effective and the level of protection reduces over time, meaning boosters are sometimes required.

Are there any other ways to prevent cholera?

The WHO is working to reduce the number of cholera cases by closely monitoring water sources for signs of the infection.

They are also putting in place the development of piped water supplies and safe sewage disposal in countries where there is poor sanitation.

For travellers, the NHS has issued advice on what they can do to prevent cholera as well as travellers’ diarrhoea.

This includes:

  • Only drinking water that is from a bottle that has been sealed or recently boiled
  • Avoiding ice cream and having ice in drinks
  • Not eating uncooked fruit and vegetables
  • Avoiding shellfish, seafood and salads.

What is the WHO (World Health Organisation)?

  • The WHO are an organisation fighting for better health for everyone across the world.
  • It began on 7 April 1948 but now they have more than 7000 people working in 150 countries for them.
  • Their main role is to coordinate international health within the United Nations system.
  • They strive to combat diseases from HIV to cholera, to influenza and cancer.
  • They help provide better and cleaner water, air and food.
  • They try to provide essential vaccines and medicines.


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