Cholera: The 19th century’s Ebola?

Cholera: The 19th century’s Ebola?
The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century in Europe and North America have many similarities with the current Ebola epidemic, one commentator claims. Can present day governments and NGOs learn from history?

In an article in The Conversation, Sally Sheard, who is affiliated with WaterAid, argues there are many parallels between the current panic over Ebola and the 19th century fear of cholera.

Cholera first arrived in Britain in 1831, and, like Ebola, was spread by touch and bodily fluids. In India, the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe the disease killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“Internationally, cholera continued to expose political, social and economic failures well into the 20th century,” Sheard wrote. “British India experienced cholera epidemics of around 200,000 deaths into the 1940s. But these rarely provoked a colonial or global response.”

Cholera spread throughout Europe from Bengal (in today’s India). There were six cholera pandemics between 1817 and 1923. In Poland, half of all cholera victims died from it. The British public was informed about the disease and its symptoms through newspaper reports.

Symptoms of cholera include severe stomach pains, diarrhea and vomiting, and it can lead to death if untreated. As well as bodily fluids, the disease is also spread through unsafe drinking water and poor sanitary conditions.

While the government’s approach, after the first few cases of cholera, was cautious, that quickly changed as the number of British cases rose. A board of health was set up as well as temporary hospitals.

As more cases arose, riots and violence erupted. Traditional wakes were banned and the dead were buried quickly in communal graves.

READ MORE:Ebola: Viral hysteria, media craze and fear mongering infect the globe

Medical science and infrastructure is more advanced nowadays, but present day governments have been criticized for their slow response to Ebola. The panic and fear surrounding the current outbreak, however, is increasingly seen as exaggerated.

A 9-year-old boy from Sierra Leone has been refused attendance at a UK school over Ebola fears, while a student also from Sierra Leone was denied housing in Norwich over the same fears.

There have only been a handful of Ebola cases in the US. Meanwhile, in the UK, William Pooley is the only Brit to have contracted the virus, from which he recovered, while working in Sierra Leone.

Health care professionals insist the chances of an outbreak in Britain, the US and other European countries are extremely low.

A Liberian health worker holds a baby infected with the Ebola virus at the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Ebola treatment center in Monrovia. (AFP Photo / Zoom Dosso)

While the cholera outbreak in Europe is a long distant memory, an epidemic of the disease is today gripping large parts of northern Cameroon and Nigeria.

The cholera epidemic there has gone largely unnoticed, as the world’s attention is focused on Ebola. By August this year, at least 65 people had died in Cameroon. Within two months of the outbreak, 1,300 people had been infected.

Some 24,683 cholera cases have been reported in Nigeria since the beginning of the year. The first three cases in Cameroon were reported in late April after a Nigerian family crossed the border to receive treatment.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said around 60,000 refugees have fled into Cameroon, Niger and Chad from northern Nigeria, some of them carrying the disease.

The Nigerian Daily Post reported around 80 Nigerian refugees, fleeing the militant Boko Haram group in early October, have died from cholera in refugee camps in Cameroon.

By diverting resources to set up border and airport checks for Ebola, the Cameroon authorities are “distracting from an appropriate and fast response to this cholera epidemic,” said Atilio Rivera-Vasquez, public health adviser in the region for International Medical Corps.

The last major cholera epidemic in Cameroon killed more than 4,000 people in 2011/12.

ICYMI