Cholera is an illness we don’t really hear about often. That is until very recently—with Haiti’s department of public health recorded 4,147 confirmed cases and 292 deaths from cholera since the outbreak was reported last week, officials from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced today. The PAHO is watching the spread of the disease closely, for fear that cholera could cross the border into the Dominican Republic.
Stand-out writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written a novel set in a time where the disease ran rampantly, but do we really know what cholera is and how it affects the human body?
Cholera is a bacterial illness that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and can be lethal within hours if a person is not treated. Says Dr. William Schaffner, chair of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center:
“This is a bacteria that actually is in the environment. It’s in brackish water in the river. It can be in seacoasts and if the environmental conditions are not right, the cholera bacteria can grow up and then anyone who ingests that water or food that comes from that water or food that is prepared with that water can get ill.”
In an epidemic, cholera can also be spread from the feces of an infected person. Children and adults alike are vulnerable. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), three-quarters of people carrying the bacteria have no symptoms. For those who do get sick, the main symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps, dehydration and shock. To some, the outbreak may not appear to be such a surprise, as some experts predicted that when the earthquake in Haiti hit in January health problems from poor sanitation and crowded conditions would likely continue well into the future.