At one time, cholera was one of the most widespread and feared epidemics in Britain. Nowadays we rarely talk about it, but are we really in the clear?

Cholera is a diarrhoeal disease brought about by ingesting food or water which has been contaminated with the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. Symptoms of the condition are both unpleasant and potentially dangerous, including profuse watery diarrhoea which, if left untreated, can cause significant dehydration. In extreme cases of cholera, the condition can be fatal.

Many people may not realise that cholera is still very much a threat to global health today, as it has such strong connotations with the questionable hygiene of Victorian London. However, we’re here to explore just how much people in the UK should be concerned about cholera in the 21st century.

Cholera and the UK: a brief history

In the 1800s, the UK – and particularly London – was ravaged by cholera. Four major outbreaks of the condition occurred in London between 1832 and 1866, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

The condition was brought into Europe from the Indian subcontinent, and once it arrived in London it spread extremely rapidly. This is mainly due to poor hygiene and the spreading of misinformation. The condition was reported to be airborne, when in fact it was spread through contaminated food and water. At the time, it was not uncommon for sewage to come into contact with drinking water, making water hygiene hard to control. The Thames – the main source of drinking water for residents – became more and more polluted throughout the 19th century.

The Soho district of London was particularly affected, with more than 500 people dying from the condition in just 10 days. By 1875, a project to divert waste away from the Thames was completed.

The last cholera epidemic occurred in Britain in 1866.

Cholera around the world

Even today, cholera remains a global threat to public health. There are an estimated 1.3-4 million cases of cholera per year around the world, leading to an average of 95,000 deaths.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation reported that 80% of all cholera outbreaks were arising in just five countries: Afghanistan, Haiti, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Most cases of cholera occur within Africa and Asia, with 60% occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and a further 29% in Asia. However, cases are still reported from Europe, the Americas and Oceania.

Cholera is far more common in areas without proper access to effective hygiene, making the consumption of contaminated food and water much more likely. Likewise, fatalities are much more common in areas where effective rehydration treatment can’t be easily sought.

A traveller’s disease

Despite its continuing global prevalence, cholera does not occur in the UK. However, UK travellers remain at risk. An average of 15 cases of cholera are reported in England and Wales each year, all occurring as the result of travelling to a high-risk location.

So for travellers, awareness of the condition remains important in order to enjoy your travel experience safely. Those living or working in less sanitary conditions – such as relief workers in disaster zones or refugee camps – are most at risk.

Practising good food and water hygiene is key to avoiding the condition, such as washing your hands before and after eating, and only drinking bottled water or water which has been boiled and cooled.

A vaccination against cholera is also available. This offers the greatest protection for travellers against the disease.

Make sure you stay safe from cholera and a host of other common travel-related conditions by getting the necessary vaccinations from Express Travel Clinic. Get in touch today by calling 0208 993 58 89 or click here to book an appointment.