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Millions of people across the world contract cholera every year. Estimates suggest that more than 100,000 lives are lost every year to the disease.

The destruction and flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti has led to fears that there could be a deadly surge in cases.

In this blog, British Red Cross health adviser Greg Rose explains the threat posed by this potentially life-threatening disease.

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The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti

What is cholera?

Cholera is a bacterial infection that is spread when people consume contaminated food or water – it is nearly always waterborne.

It is preventable and treatable. Without treatment, however, death can occur within hours.

Where is cholera found?

The disease is usually found in places where there is a lack of clean water, poor hygiene and limited access to health care.

It is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, South Asia and parts of South-East Asia.

What are the symptoms?

Cholera has a short incubation period, between two hours and five days. This explains why you often see a sudden burst of cases.

Most people have mild or no symtoms. Those who do develop symptoms will usually experience:

  • Severe, watery diarrhoea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting

It’s important to note that even if people do not display symptoms, the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, stays in their faeces for up to two weeks.

So if people are practising open defecation, or if infrastructure is damaged after a natural disaster, then you can see how the bacteria can spread.

Can it be treated?

Absolutely – there is no reason why anyone should die from cholera. Treatment is often very simple depending on the stage of infection.

If cholera is detected early, then the patient may just need an oral rehydration solution to prevent dehydration.

If it’s more serious, then the patient may require intravenous fluid replacement at hospital.

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A lady recovering from cholera at treatment centre in Burundi

It’s not the bacterium that will kill a person. A combination of acute diarrhoea and vomiting can lead to severe dehydration – a victim can lose several litres of fluid in a matter of hours. This is what proves fatal.

While cholera is easily treatable, the issue is that in places where cholera is prevalent, such as in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa, health care is not always readily available.

Why is cholera so common after a natural disaster?

As we’ve seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, there has been a lot of flooding and damage to infrastructure.

Sewers can overflow, resulting in effluent contaminating water sources used for drinking, cleaning and washing.

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The town of Jérémie, in Haiti, was badly hit by the hurricane

Likewise, damaged water pipes can lead to stagnant or contaminated water mixing with water used by people.

The hurricane also destroyed thousands of homes. People have been forced to seek shelter wherever they can.

If they don’t have access to toilets, hand-washing facilities and drainage, then conditions become ripe for disease outbreaks.

So how do you prevent cholera?

The most effective solution in the aftermath of a disaster is to make sure people are aware of the dangers and have access to clean, chlorinated water, soap and toilets.

Among the relief items being distributed by the Red Cross in Haiti are hygiene kits, tarpaulins, jerry cans and water purification tablets.

We are also educating people about the dangers of waterborne diseases so they know why it is so important to practise good hygiene.