In the West, we tend to think of cholera as something that our ancestors had to deal with – an issue that's firmly confined to our past. Yet for millions of people around the globe, the fatal bacterial infection is a very real threat to survival, despite the fact that effective medicine exists to treat it.
The World Health Organization has now launched an ambitious health initiative to cut the number of cholera deaths globally by 90 percent by 2030. The WHO is partnering with 50 other agencies in international development and health in order to deliver on the pledge, marking the first time that governments and organizations have set their sights on the disease.
Cholera, which is caused by a bacteria that thrives in infected food and water, is thought to infect around 3 million people every year, leading to about 100,000 deaths. Those who become infected can suffer from a range of symptoms, typically including diarrhea and vomiting. This can cause those infected to become severely dehydrated and malnourished, and is particularly fatal to children in developing countries who are not eating enough to begin with.
The announcement comes as Yemen is still in the throes of one of the worst cholera outbreaks the world has ever seen. The ongoing civil war has caused a breakdown in the country's hygiene and sanitation, leading to almost 800,000 people becoming infected with the bacteria and causing at least 2,000 deaths (the majority of which are children). There are now fears that with the recent genocide and upheaval of the Rohingya in south Asia, another outbreak is imminent.
Appallingly, we already have the ability to deal with the disease. The disease thrives in and spreads via water contaminated with infected feces, something that rich countries dealt with hundreds of years ago by improving sewage and sanitation systems.
“Every death from cholera is preventable with the tools available today, including use of the Oral Cholera Vaccine and improved access to basic safe water, sanitation and hygiene as set out in the Roadmap,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, in a statement. “This is a disease of inequity that affects the poorest and most vulnerable. It is unacceptable that nearly two decades into the 21st century, cholera continues to destroy livelihoods and cripple economies.
“We must act together. And we must act now.”
The plan is to synchronize the efforts of donors, governments, and agencies to provide a full and effective cover via an oral vaccine in the short term and improvements in sanitation and hygiene in the long term.