Cholera is acute water borne disease that results from a bacterial infection of the intestine. It is characterised by diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. The diarrhoea associated with the condition is usually severe and a lot of fluid is lost from the body. As a result dehydration occurs in most cases.
Cholera commonly occurs in areas of poor hygiene and sanitation and may spread as an epidemic in areas of overcrowding, famine and flooding. The incidence of the disease is very high in India and other countries of South East Asia.
How is it caused?
Cholera is caused by a bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted through contaminated food and water. It can also be transmitted from one person to another through dirty hands and nails, which might contain the bacterium. The infected person’s linen can also transmit the infection.
What are the symptoms?
Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal infection. The symptoms include:
Diarrhoea that is severe and watery
Severe stomach and leg cramps
Vomiting and dehydration
Increased heart rate
Fatigue and tiredness
How is it diagnosed?
Cholera is diagnosed with the help of laboratory tests. A sample of stool is collected before a person is prescribed antibiotics. A specimen of the contaminated food and water, if it can be retrieved, is also taken for laboratory testing. The presence of the causal bacteria in the samples confirms the diagnosis. Blood tests may be done to ascertain the degree of water and salt loss from the body.
What is the treatment?
The initial treatment is to replace the fluids and electrolytes that have been lost from the body. The most easily available form of treatment is ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution), which can be made at home. This is a salt sugar (glucose) solution, which helps to restore the fluid balance of the body. ORS packets are also available in the market.
In case the infection is severe and the patient is unable to drink enough liquids or has persistent vomiting, intravenous fluids have to be given. This can only be done in a hospital or a well-equipped clinic.
Antibiotics such as tetracycline are prescribed to control the infection. However, antibiotics are only prescribed after the laboratory tests have confirmed the diagnosis. Fluid therapy should be continued in addition to the medicines to maintain the body’s fluid balance. Cholera is a notifiable disease. All proven cases must be immediately reported to the health authority in the district.
Can cholera be prevented?
Cholera can be prevented by taking a few simple precautions:
Water should always be boiled before consumption
Good personal hygiene, for example, proper use of toilets, washing hands especially before a meal, and keeping finger nails clean help to prevent infection
If there is an epidemic, children should be vaccinated against the disease
Booster doses are given every six months to people living in cholera-prone areas
Travellers should be careful with food and drinking water even if they have been vaccinated against the disease.