Cholera

Prevention and control of cholera outbreaks: WHO policy and recommendations

Cholera is an acute enteric infection caused by the ingestion of bacterium Vibrio cholerae present in faecally contaminated water or food. Primarily linked to insufficient access to safe water and proper sanitation, its impact can be even more dramatic in areas where basic environmental infrastructures are disrupted or have been destroyed. Countries facing complex emergencies are particularly vulnerable to cholera outbreaks. Massive displacement of IDPs or refugees to overcrowded settings, where the provision of potable water and sanitation is challenging, constitutes also a risk factor. In consequence, it is of paramount importance to be able to rely on accurate surveillance data to monitor the evolution of the outbreak and to put in place adequate intervention measures Coordination of the different sectors involved is essential, and WHO calls for the cooperation of all to limit the effect of cholera on populations.

Cholera is characterized in its most severe form by a sudden onset of acute watery diarrhoea that can lead to death by severe dehydration. The extremely short incubation period - two hours to five days - enhances the potentially explosive pattern of outbreaks, as the number of cases can rise very quickly. About 75% of people infected with cholera do not develop any symptoms. However, the pathogens stay in their faeces for 7 to 14 days and are shed back into the environment, possibly infecting other individuals. Cholera is an extremely virulent disease that affects both children and adults. Unlike other diarrhoeal diseases, it can kill healthy adults within hours. Individuals with lower immunity, such as malnourished children or people living with HIV, are at greater risk of death if infected by cholera.

Key messages

  • Cholera is transmitted through contaminated water or food.
  • Cholera can rapidly lead to severe dehydration and death if left untreated.
  • Prevention and preparedness of cholera require a coordinated multidisciplinary approach.