Photograph by Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters
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Cholera can lead to rapid dehydration and shock; if not treated quickly, severe cases can be fatal. In Haiti, thousands of people have died from cholera in recent years.

Photograph by Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters

How Cholera Spread So Quickly Through Haiti

The UN admits it played a role in a deadly outbreak of the disease.

The United Nations recently admitted that it played a role in introducing cholera to Haiti after a deadly earthquake hit the nation in 2010.

In recent years, cholera has afflicted at least 770,000 Haitians and claimed over 9,200 lives. The Haitian epidemic alone resulted in an 85 percent increase in the number of cholera cases worldwide. The UN has not explicitly said it caused the cholera outbreak; however, the Secretary-General's office says peacekeepers who arrived in Haiti after the earthquake may have helped trigger the epidemic.

How Did It Spread?

Cholera spreads through drinking water or food contaminated by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae; large epidemics often stem from water supplies contaminated by fecal matter. The Haitian outbreak is believed to have started near a UN camp hosting peacekeepers from Nepal who were in Haiti for relief efforts.

Situated alongside the Meille River, the camp discharged its waste directly into the river. At the time, Nepal was suffering a cholera outbreak, and the peacekeepers are suspected to have transmitted the disease through their waste. The river was a primary source of water for thousands of people, and lacking sanitation options, the water may have been consumed without proper treatment.

Many experts believe this outbreak of cholera was the first incidence of the disease in Haiti in decades. As a result, the population lacked immunity and was particularly vulnerable to the illness.

Why Was It So Devastating?

Cholera is a messy disease. The symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and cramping. In severe cases, dehydration and shock can take hold within hours. If left untreated, 25 to 50 percent of cases can be fatal.

Urban centers lacking water and sanitation infrastructure are especially susceptible. The rapid diffusion of the disease is tied to squalid conditions and insufficient health and sanitary infrastructure in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

In areas with poor sanitation and hygiene, explosive diarrhea and vomiting can accelerate the diffusion of disease because the waste—and the bacteria it carries—is harder to contain.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Cholera can be prevented through careful sanitation and hygiene. If possible, use bottled water with unbroken seals, and if bottled water is unavailable, boil the water for at least one minute or treat it with chlorine or household bleach. Any food, especially shellfish and seafood, should be thoroughly cooked; bacteria can attach themselves to the shells of crab, shrimp, and other shellfish.

Safe handwashing practices are crucial for cholera prevention. Handwashing after using the bathroom, and again before preparing food or eating, is critical for prevention.

Lastly, cholera can be thwarted by properly disposing of human waste. Latrines and other sanitation systems should be located away from homes, if possible, and any defecation should take place at least 98 feet (30 meters) from a body of water.

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