Haiti, wrecked by a massive earthquake in January, is now struggling with an epidemic of cholera that has spread through camps of earthquake refugees and into the nation's capital of Port-au-Prince. Dr. Jon LaPook, medical correspondent for CBS News, has probably done the best job I've seen of describing the horrific, disgusting toll this disease takes on the human body and on the societies it moves through.
I spoke to a middle-aged man, Robert Raphael, whose family lives between St. Marc and Gonaives. Over the past week he has lost a brother, niece, nephew, and "five or six" cousins to cholera. Five or six—he'd lost count.
They clearly need more doctors and nurses, but seemed to have enough oral rehydration solution and IV fluids for now. They obviously need specialized supplies like "cholera beds"—cots with holes cut in them for easier defecation. I asked an 8-year-old named Ritchie if it was hard to "faire toilette" in public (it's all out in the open), and he looked embarrassed and said, "Yes." That got to me.
The bug behind this devastation—the bacterium Vibrio cholerae—is a fascinating and frustrating creature. Fascinating, because of its role in the development of epidemiology and what we're still learning from it. Frustrating, because it ought to be relatively simple to treat and prevent infection. We know what to do to help a cholera victim survive. All it takes is access to clean water and the most basic medical supplies. The trouble here isn't science, it's poverty.
Cholera is, essentially, the worst food poisoning you can possibly imagine. In fact, it's related to Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that tends to infect people via undercooked seafood.
After you ingest the cholera bacteria, it'll hang out in your gut for a few days before symptoms kick in. Once they do, though, cholera can kill you within hours. How? I'll be blunt: Massive, constant diarrhea that drains the body of fluids and electrolytes and leaves victims looking like glassy-eyed, hollow-cheeked corpses before they actually are.
Nobody knows exactly how old cholera is, but, from a pop-culture perspective, it's inextricably linked to the 19th century, when several pandemic waves took cholera from its roots in the Indian subcontinent to being the first global killer—taking advantage of increased trade and immigration to strike Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
And it was a complete mystery. At the time, disease was thought to spread via "bad air", a pre-germ theory explanation for the patterns left by person-to-person contact. But cholera didn't seem to fit. The doctor could visit a house riddled with the disease, and walk away unscathed. And, yet, at the same time, cholera swept through whole neighborhoods—usually the poor ones—killing hundreds, or thousands.
You probably know the story of Dr. John Snow. During the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, Snow took the radical and now-laughably-obvious step of mapping cholera deaths throughout the city. He found that the outbreaks centered around nexus points, which lined up with public water pumps—specifically, the pumps that sourced their water from the downstream end of the Thames. And that's how we learned a valuable lesson. Preventing cholera is easy. All you have to do is make sure that people don't have to drink water that's been contaminated with sewage.
Today, cholera is all but non-existent in developed countries. Not because we're immune. Not because we have access to a miracle drug. It's simply about money. Money, and the will to build public sanitation systems that treat the poor and the wealthy to an equal level of separation between what we drink and what we excrete. After all, there were water services in Dr. Snow's time, but they were heavily divided by class. The wealthy drew their drinking water from upstream and dumped their sewage below that point, where it made its way to the public wells used by everybody who couldn't afford the better water.
Malaria is often what we talk about when we talk about diseases of poverty. But simple diarrhea kills more people every year. Cholera is only one part of that.
And it is all about the money. What kills you isn't so much the diarrhea, itself, but the loss of fluids and essential salts and minerals. Replace enough of those, soon enough, and people tend to survive. This is a disease that can be cured with Brawndo. (It's got what cholera victims crave!) In fact, one of the greatest public health inventions of the 20th century—and, perhaps, the most underrated—is the pre-mixed Oral Rehydration Therapy sachet—little packets containing dried mixtures of mostly sodium and glucose. Pour a packet into clean water, and you have an instant treatment for cholera. This is pretty much all that stands between a bout of cholera meaning a really bad, gross week, and a bout of cholera meaning death.
Right now, people are dying in Haiti not because we don't know how to save them, but because of a lack of access, both to clean water and to Oral Rehydration Therapy. In other words, they are dying not because of a disease, but because of poverty.
How You Can Help:
• Donate to Doctors Without Borders and help get Oral Rehydration Therapy to people who need it.
• Donate to World Vision, which does both medical work, and helps bring clean, safe drinking water to communities around the world.
• Donate to Water.Org, a charity devoted to water infrastructure projects.
Some Other, Related Links:
• Fault activity indicates that Haiti is at risk of more, and possibly larger, earthquakes
• Fascinating piece explaining how cholera can hide, dormant in a population for years, waiting for a sanitation crisis to attack
• Cholera at The Bacteria Museum
• The Climate Connection: How warming oceans can influence the spread of cholera
• Interesting information on what the toxin produced by cholera bacteria does in the human body and why it causes diarrhea
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.