Cholera is an infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. People who are infected usually experience severe, watery diarrhoea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration. The term cholera was already used in ancient Greece and derives from the word ‘chole’ meaning bile. The cholera bacterium is a moving, curved strain, which nestles in the intestines. After infection, the incubation period may vary from 12 hours to five days, but is typically two to three days.
How do you catch it?
You can contract cholera through contaminated water. For example, you can get sick by drinking contaminated tap water, but also by eating the wrong food. Think, for example, of vegetables that have been washed in contaminated water, or animals that have swam in contaminated water. Shellfish concentrate the bacteria and pose an increased risk. In high-risk areas, it is better to avoid food from street vendors.
Other ways of infection with cholera are: swimming in contaminated water and contact with a patient’s faeces. In South Asia, Africa and South America, the cholera bacterium occurs in surface water.
Where does it occur?
Cholera was already known in India before the nineteenth century. Around 1830, the disease reached Europe via Russia. During a major cholera outbreak in 1832-’33 in the Netherlands, nearly 5,000 people died. In the early twentieth century, cholera still occurred in the Netherlands, but nowadays cholera is only an import disease that is brought by travelers.
Cholera is prevalent on almost all continents. However, most cases occur in South Asia, South America and particularly in Africa where large outbreaks occur regularly.
What are the symptoms?
Initial cholera symptoms are often vomiting and watery diarrhoea, which can range from mild diarrhoea – that is difficult to distinguish from diarrhoea caused by other factors – to very severe, watery diarrhoea. Diarrhoea that is caused by a cholera infection often has a yellowish green colour, contains flakes and doesn’t smell. This type of diarrhoea is sometimes described as “rice water”. Characteristic for this type of diarrhoea is the absence of abdominal cramps. The watery diarrhoea can lead to severe dehydration. In rare cases, fever is one of the symptoms of cholera.
How do you prevent it?
Whilst travelling, we advise you to pay attention to general hygiene and cleanliness. It is best to only drink water that’s been recently boiled or disinfected, or to drink from a properly sealed bottle. Furthermore, it is wise to only eat well-heated food that is served hot. Also, avoid ice cream, uncooked shellfish and seafood and other raw foods such as salads and fruit. In other words: ‘cook it, peel it, boil it – or forget it’.