Cholera is a bacterial infection. It is caused by drinking water contaminated with vibrio cholerae bacteria, or by eating food that has been in contact with contaminated water.
The most common symptoms of cholera are extensive:
- Watery diarrhoea
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Vomiting (being sick)
- muscle cramps
Left untreated the combination of diarrhoea and vomiting can cause a person to quickly become dehydrated (lack of fluids inside their body) and go into shock (experience a sudden massive drop in blood pressure). In severe cases these conditions can be fatal.
Both result in heart or lung failure and are fatal.
Cases of cholera are now largely confined to regions of the world with poor sanitation and water hygiene, such as:
- Sub-Saharan Africa (all the countries south of the Sahara desert)
- South and south-east Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh
- Some parts of the Middle East
- Some parts of South America
Around three-quarters of people who are exposed to cholera bacteria do not develop any symptoms. However, these people can contaminate water by passing stools (faeces) that contain bacteria into water, or pass on the disease through poor food hygiene.
If you are travelling to parts of the world known to be affected by cholera, following some basic precautions should prevent you from contracting a cholera infection:
- Maintain good personal hygiene
- Only drink water from a bottle that has been properly sealed or carbonated
- Do not buy ice cream, ice cubes or fruit juices from street vendors
- Do not eat raw vegetables, peeled fruit, shellfish or salads
There is a vaccine (given as a drink) that protects against cholera. It is estimated to be 85% effective. Contact your travel clinician to find out whether it is necessary for your travels.