The Cholera QuandaryDecember 27, 2010 By Sarah Kornblet
The original version of this article first appeared in the Stimson Center Spotlight series, November 19, 2010.
Cholera is usually seen as one of the most devastating infections of the 19th century. Trade routes carried cholera from India to the great cities of Europe and the United States. Disease, fear, and political unrest spread in great waves that cost millions of lives. After much destruction, it was only with science and resources that certain populations were able to curb the epidemic.One of the most celebrated lessons in the history of public health involves a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 and efforts by John Snow – celebrated as the father of epidemiology – to control it. At the time, it was not clear that cholera was a waterborne bacterial infection that caused severe diarrhea and vomiting, and sometimes fatal dehydration. Snow proved that the outbreaks decimating communities spread from contaminated water. Water and sanitation services had virtually eliminated cholera epidemics in the developed world by the early 1900s.
Today, cholera has been nearly eradicated in the developed world, but continues to be endemic in poorer countries. Risks seem to be rising as larger populations are crowded into unsanitary conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates three to five million illnesses and 100,000-200,000 deaths from cholera each year. If caught early, infections are treatable with inexpensive oral rehydration solutions. For much of the world, these options are unavailable or underused – the mere presence of cholera serves as an indicator of a country’s socioeconomic status and health system capabilities.
The cholera epidemics that are currently menacing countries on three different continents – Asia, Africa, and North America – raise tough questions about what is required to protect the world’s vulnerable populations. We know how to predict the crisis of cholera, prevent outbreaks, and contain them when they occur. To control cholera, what is needed is not cutting-edge technologies, but will, transparency, and resources – and where cholera appears, at least one of these three factors has failed.
Currently, cholera outbreaks in Pakistan, Haiti, and Nigeria are piling misery upon misery. Cholera in post-flood Pakistan comes as no surprise. When floodwaters left millions homeless and without access to clean drinking water in a region where cholera remains endemic, health officials could have reasonably assumed infected human waste would seep into water supplies and spread disease. The inability of health networks on the ground to prevent and then detect cholera demonstrates cracks in the country’s health system. What is apparent here is a lack of will and resources. Disease surveillance is especially vital in a post-disaster scenario where steps can be taken, such as treating water with chlorine, to prevent an outbreak.
Haiti had been free of cholera for at least 50 years, but the disease struck and spread rapidly 10 months after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. It reached Haiti’s capital and spread to its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Since October, more than 114,000 people have become ill and more than 2,500 have died (Editor’s note: updated since original publication).
Haiti lacked resources for basic infrastructure even prior to the earthquake; the cholera crisis is not only costing lives, but also diverting aid from “building back better.” But regardless of the source of the cholera strain, if basic infrastructure and resources to protect Haiti’s vulnerable populations had been in place, cholera’s re-emergence would have been far less devastating.
This particular outbreak draws attention to the practical and political challenges of identifying health risks in humanitarian workers and peacekeepers, many of whom come from developing countries themselves. Evidence suggests that peacekeepers from Nepal, housed at a UN base, may have been the source of the outbreak clustered around the Artibonite River. Cholera outbreaks frequently exacerbate frictions between communities and aid workers – suspicions that have led to riots and murder more than once in recent years. At least two people were killed in Haiti in riots with peacekeepers during November.The delayed decision by the UN to investigate whether the outbreak originated with peacekeepers may have conserved resources for the race to stave off more cases, but did little to build trust between communities and foreign workers. Further violence and protests surrounding the recent disputed presidential election in Haiti do little to ease the devastation and in fact, threaten the relief effort. There has been discussion in Congress of cutting direct aid and suspending visas for Haitian officials until the dispute as been resolved. The Organization of American States is now reviewing the results.
In Africa, Nigeria is experiencing its worst cholera outbreak since 1991, and the disease is crossing borders. An onslaught of cases raised the 2010 death toll to more than 1,500 fatalities out of 40,000 cases. This mortality rate is three times higher than the seasonal cholera outbreaks of 2009, and seven times higher than 2008. Despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, most of the population is impoverished. Two-thirds of rural Nigerians lack access to safe drinking water and fewer than 40 percent of people in cholera-affected areas have access to toilet facilities, according to the Nigerian Health Ministry. A combined lack of will, transparency, and resources mean that cholera epidemics occur annually, and in clusters throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
A century and a half after John Snow’s discovery, we know how to control cholera. Globally, the resources exist, but the question of a collective will remains. For those who lack clean water to drink, to wash, or even proper toilets, the gap between knowing and doing is not easily closed. The international community has shown repeatedly that it can confront cholera outbreaks like those in Haiti, Pakistan, and Nigeria in the midst of crisis. The question remains as to how those efforts can eliminate the conditions that fostered outbreaks in the first place. The answer is not as riveting as the causes that often receive funding: basic infrastructure and resources. Roads, wells, clean water, toilets, education, and the willingness to recognize that if the foundation is not sound, nothing will be able to stand. Sometimes the simplest problems are the most difficult to solve.
Sarah Kornblet is a research fellow at the Global Health Security Program at the Stimson Center. Her research focuses on the International Health Regulations, health systems strengthening, global health diplomacy, the intersection of public health and security, and the potential for innovative and dynamic health policy solutions in developing countries.
Sources: Agence France-Presse, BBC, Washington Post, World Health Organization.
Photo Credit: “UN Peacekeepers Provide Security During Port-au-Prince Food Distribution,” courtesy of flickr user United Nations Photo.