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Cholera is a dangerous diarrhoeal disease which, if left untreated, can prove to be fatal in a matter of hours.

According to the World Health Organization, there are 1.3 million to 4 million cases of cholera per year, resulting in 21 000 to 143 000 deaths throughout the world.

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About Cholera

The cause of cholera is the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which infects the small intestine. How cholera affects the body is the bacterium causes the cells lining the intestine to produce large amounts of fluid. The result is diarrhoea and vomiting (cramps are also common), which can range from mild to severe. In severe cases, cholera can become fatal in a short period of time.

The infection spreads when a person consumes food or water containing the faeces or vomit of another person who has been infected with cholera. Contaminated food or water is common in overcrowded areas like slums or refugee camps.

Cholera outbreaks are common in areas where there is overcrowding and people don’t have access to proper sanitation or clean water. This means that cholera is often a serious risk following natural disasters and emergency situations, for example, the Haiti earthquake of 2010. However, it’s important to note that cholera can occur anywhere, especially during rainy seasons in impoverished areas where houses and latrines flood, leaving stagnant pools of contaminated water.

Our water and sanitation engineers and logisticians play an important role in the prevention of cholera. In many cases, MSF teams have been able to aid with the treatment of cholera and have managed to limit the death rate to less than one percent.

FAQ's

  • What is the cause of cholera?

    The cause of cholera is the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. People get cholera when they eat or drink food or water that is contaminated with the bacterium.

  • What are the symptoms of cholera?

    The symptoms of cholera include watery diarrhoea and vomiting. This leads to severe dehydration. Only around one in 20 people infected with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium have symptoms. Symptoms can appear within hours or up to five days.

  • Can cholera be treated?

    Yes, cholera can be treated. It is treated using antimicrobial agents, which are generally given for three to five day. Single-doses of doxycycline, tetracycline, ciprofloxacin or furazolidone can help reduce the frequency and amount of diarrhoea.

  • Is cholera infectious?

    Yes, cholera is infectious. Cholera is passed from person to person via water or food that has been contaminated with the feacal matter of someone who has been infected by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium.

  • Can cholera be cured?

    Yes, cholera can be cured. The treatment a cholera patient receives depends on how mild or severe their case is. In most cases, treatment simply includes replenishing the fluids and electrolytes that have been lost. In severe cases, antibiotics are used to slow down and limit the amount of diarrhoea and vomiting, which also helps minimise the risk of the Vibrio cholerae bacterium spreading through excretion.

  • Can cholera spread from person to person?

    Cholera is not spread directly from person to person as a common cold is. Instead, cholera is spread through feacal matter infected with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium passing from one person into food or the water supply and then to the second person who consumes the contaminated food or water.

  • Can cholera kill you?

    Yes, severe cases of cholera can kill you. Cholera can cause excessive, watery diarrhoea and vomiting, which results in severe dehydration. Extreme dehydration can prove to be fatal in a matter of hours.

  • How long does it take for someone to die from cholera?

    Cholera causes dehydration and, in severe cases, can result in death within a few hours.

  • Is cholera treated with antibiotics?

    In most cases, a cholera patient is treated by replenishing lost fluid and electrolytes. If the case is severe, however, antibiotics are used to reduce the frequency and amount of diarrhoea and vomiting that occurs. This is helpful in cutting down the spreading of the disease because there is less chance of the patient contaminating the water or food supply.

  • Is there a vaccine for cholera?

    There are vaccines available for cholera. There are two types of oral vaccines for cholera: inactivated and attenuated. The inactivated oral vaccine comes in two variants, commercially known as Dukorai and Shanchol or mORCVAX. The attenuated oral vaccine was recently approved in 2016 by the US FDA and is commercially known as Vaxchora. There is a vaccine for cholera which you can inject, however, it is rarely used.

  • How do you avoid getting cholera?

    You can avoid getting cholera by being vaccinated before entering an area where there has been a cholera outbreak. Aside from that, you should stay away from food or water that may be contaminated by feacal matter containing the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. Drink only bottled (and sealed), sterilised or boiled water. Only eat food that has been thoroughly cooked and is still hot or fruits and vegetables you have peeled yourself.

  • Can you boil water to get rid of cholera?

    Yes, you can boil water to get rid of the Vibrio cholerae bacterium which causes cholera because boiling water kills bacteria, among other microorganisms that cause diseases.

  • How does cholera affect the human body?

    Cholera causes the body to lose fluids and electrolytes through dehydration, which is caused by diarrhoea and vomiting.

  • Can a person survive cholera?

    Yes, a person can survive cholera. In most cases, all that is needed to treat cholera is the replenishing of fluids and electrolytes in the body. In severe cases, antibiotics can be used to reduce vomiting and diarrhoea.

  • How is cholera spread?

    Cholera is spread from one person to another through water or food contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. The bacterium enters the food or water supply through the feces of a person who is already infected and infects anyone who ingests the contaminated water or food.

Cholera often breaks out when there is overcrowding and inadequate access to clean water, rubbish collection and proper toilets.

It causes profuse diarrhoea and vomiting which can lead to death by intense dehydration, sometimes within a matter of hours.

Cholera is a serious risk in the aftermath of emergencies, like the Haiti earthquake of 2010, but can strike anywhere. The situation can be especially problematic in rainy seasons when houses and latrines flood and contaminated water collects in stagnant pools.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cholera affects three to five million people worldwide and causes between 100,000 and 130,000 deaths per year.

MSF’s water and sanitation engineers and logisticians play a vital role in the prevention of cholera. The disease is treatable and, in many situations, MSF teams have limited the death rate to less than one percent.

Hover over the image below for an interactive guide to cholera

MSF treated 32,600 people for cholera in 2015.