We knew that the news of a recent cholera outbreak would prompt someone to ask us about the disease… and it has happened. ‘Thomas’ wrote in and asked:
I read about cholera back in school and how it once ravages the US, or what they called the US back in the… 1800’s(?). Been a while since I was in school, though, so I don’t remember if they said it was something we needed to worry about anymore — and after the H1N1 panic/hype/scare/whatever I don’t know if I believe the news media these days when it comes to stuff like this. Should I be worried about cholera affecting me and my family?
We suppose that since cholera can pass from person to person via contaminated drinking water that we ought to address this matter. We can do so by saying that cholera has almost disappeared from the country entirely and doctors in the US confirmed only 61 cases between 1994 and 2000… with 37 of those cases originating from exposure to the virus overseas. ( source )
How does cholera spread?
The strands of cholera that make people sick typically reside in the intestines of warm-blooded mammals — in this case humans — and easily pass from an infected person’s body as the body loses large amounts of fluids in the form of diarrhea. In severe cases an infected person can lose massive amounts of fluids in a very short amount of time and in areas lacking proper sanitation (bathrooms, sinks for hand washing, etc.) the contaminated fluids have ample opportunity to get picked up by unsuspecting future victims.
Since we already told you that very few cases of cholera have popped up in the US, and the news currently reports an outbreak in Haiti, a country known for not having proper sanitation for its very poor population, one COULD single out Haiti as the place to avoid, but in fact other countries, mostly ‘Third World’ countries, also experience problems with cholera from time to time — just not on as widespread a scale as we see in Haiti right now.
In all honesty, the same basic advice that travelers from the US have received before going abroad for many years can help keep them from becoming contaminated:
- Do not drink water whose origin you cannot verify, meaning do not drink water you have not boiled and/or treated with a disinfectant such as chlorine or iodine. test for chlorine, test for iodine
- Drinking beverages made with boiled water (such as tea and coffee) will usually pose little risk — as long as you do not add ice for any reason or use poorly cleaned or improperly washed cups/glasses. Carbonated beverages from sealed containers also usually do not pose much risk.
- Avoid raw foods and foods not thoroughly cooked, lukewarm or cold foods, and fruits/vegetables you have not peeled yourself.
- Undercooked or raw fish and shellfish… avoid them.
- Salads… avoid them. You do not know if the water used to wash the vegetables got boiled before use.
- Foods and beverages from street vendors… avoid them.
- Avoid taking perishable goods such as fruit, vegetables, meats, seafood items, etc. home with you.
Precautions to take here at home in the US?
Most importantly, we suggest WASHING YOUR DARN HANDS AFTER YOU USE THE BATHROOM! We all have seen people leaving the restroom in a public place w/o washing their hands. Nasty cretins! The fact that you didn’t think you had any spreadable diseases before entering the restroom does NOT mean you didn’t possibly pick one up while in there in as you opened the door, opened the stall door, flushed the toilet, etc., etc.
If enough people leave the bathroom w/o washing their hands eventually some infectious critter will get loose in the general public… and make everyone sick. Stop and wash your hands. It doesn’t take that long!
Worried about touching the door handle as you leave the bathroom and getting germs on your hand(s)? They sell portable bottles of hand sanitizer all over the place these days and they don’t cost a lot of money — so you have no reason not to carry one on your person or have one at your desk/workstation.
Getting back to cholera and drinking water?
Without a means of introduction into the water supply (ahem… wash your hands!) the disease cannot get too far in the US — and even then most water systems use highly effective disinfectants like chlorine and iodine to keep potentially harmful bacteria at bay and in check.