Basic Facts on Cholera

What is cholera?*
Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease caused by an infection in the intestines that can kill even a healthy adult in a matter of hours. Symptoms, including severe watery diarrhea, can surface in as little as two hours or up to five days after infection, and can then trigger extreme dehydration and kidney failure. With such a short incubation period, cholera can easily explode into an outbreak, as is the case currently in Central Haiti where there have been over 135 confirmed deaths. 

Approximately 80 percent of people infected with the cholera bacterium never develop symptoms. However, the bacterium stays in their fecal matter for seven to 14 days, leaving others at risk of infection. Of those who develop symptoms, 80 percent of them are mild to moderate while between 10 and 20 percent develop severe watery diarrhea. If left untreated, as much as 50 percent of cholera cases can be fatal.

How is cholera contracted?
Cholera is caused by ingestion of the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae. The infection is spread through contaminated fecal matter, which can be consumed through tainted food and water sources or because of poor sanitation and hygiene, like unwashed hands.

What factors make populations at risk?
Cholera is most common in areas that lack clean water sources and sanitation services. Areas like refugee camps and urban slums, where people live in close proximity with little to no access to clean water and sanitation facilities are at a very high risk of experiencing a cholera epidemic.

In complex emergencies like war and natural disaster, in which thousands of people are displaced and forced to resettle amid poor living conditions, cholera is particularly a threat as health infrastructure is frequently damaged, destroyed or non-existent.

How is it treated and prevented?
Most cases – 80 percent – can be treated through oral rehydration salts (ORS), which help reverse dehydration and restore potassium levels following the onset of acute diarrhea. The most severe cases, in which the patient is extremely dehydrated, can be treated through intravenous (IV) fluids and antibiotics.

To control the outbreak, safe water and sanitation services are essential for the at-risk population, in addition to community outreach and awareness campaigns that stress the importance of personal hygiene, especially hand-washing.

International Medical Corps recognizes that water, sanitation and proper hygiene are critical to good health. Without water, sanitation and proper hygiene, International Medical Corps' health interventions would not succeed. International Medical Corps focuses on the underlying causes of water-and-sanitation-related deaths, like water availability, water quality, waste management, and community hygiene education, to best protect at-risk populations from cholera and similar illnesses.

*Statistics provided by the World Health Organization

Our work with Cholera
International Medical Corps has extensive experience in cholera outbreak response, management, and prevention, with its most recent responses in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Iraq. Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene are also one of its top organizational priorities, with such programs in countries including Haiti, Somalia, Kenya, and the DRC.

Get the latest information on our cholera response in Haiti

A mother fans one of her ill children at one of International Medical Corps' Cholera Treatment Centers in Verettes in the Artibonite department of Haiti
A mother fans one of her ill children at one of International Medical Corps' Cholera Treatment Centers in Verettes in the Artibonite department of Haiti

Photos by Kendra Helmer/USAID


For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.