MSF Staff administrate an oral vaccine to a boy at the Nyaragusu refugee camp. Caption
MSF Staff administrate an oral vaccine to a boy at the Nyaragusu refugee camp.

Cholera is a deadly but treatable disease which affects millions worldwide

Cholera often breaks out when there is overcrowding and inadequate access to clean water, rubbish collection and proper toilets. It causes profuse diarrhoea and vomiting which can lead to death by intense dehydration, sometimes within a matter of hours.


Cholera is a serious risk in the aftermath of emergencies, like the Haiti earthquake of 2010, but can strike anywhere. The situation can be especially problematic in rainy seasons when houses and latrines flood and contaminated water collects in stagnant pools. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cholera affects three to five million people worldwide and causes between 100,000 and 140,000 deaths per year.


MSF’s water and sanitation engineers and logisticians play a vital role in the prevention of cholera. The disease is treatable and, in many situations, MSF teams have limited the death rate to less than one percent. In 2018, we treated 63,722 people for cholera across the globe. 

Young people bathe at a sawmill drainage pipe in Mabela quarter, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Aug. 13, 2012. Caption
Young people bathe at a sawmill drainage pipe in Mabela quarter, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Aug. 13, 2012.

What causes cholera?

Cholera is caused by an infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The bacterium causes the cells lining the intestine to produce large amounts of fluid, leading to profuse diarrhoea and vomiting.


The infection spreads when someone ingests food or water contaminated with the faeces or vomit of someone carrying the disease.


Contaminated food or water supplies can cause massive outbreaks in a short period of time, particularly in overcrowded areas such as slums or refugee camps.


Symptoms of cholera

Typically, symptoms of cholera appear within two to three days of infection. However, it can take anywhere from a few hours to five days or longer for symptoms to appear.


A cholera infection is often mild or without symptoms but can sometimes be severe, resulting in profuse watery diarrhoea, vomiting and leg cramps.


The patient rapidly loses body fluids, leading to dehydration and shock. Without treatment, they may die within hours.





UP TO 140,000





Diagnosing cholera

Cholera can be diagnosed by examining stool samples or rectal swabs but, due to the fast-acting nature of the disease there is often little time to do so. In epidemic situations, a diagnosis is often made by taking a patient history and conducting a brief examination, with treatment given before there is time for a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis.


Treating cholera

Cholera can be treated simply and successfully by immediately replacing the fluids and salts lost through vomiting and diarrhoea – with prompt rehydration, less than one per cent of cholera patients die. Cholera victims are always treated with oral rehydration solutions - prepackaged mixtures of sugars and salts that are mixed with water and drunk in large amounts. Severe cases will need these fluids to be replaced intravenously via a drip, and antibiotics are sometimes administered.


MSF has treated cholera outbreaks in Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Cholera: News and stories

Cholera MSF Community response
14 Mar 24

Haiti: MSF calls for an urgent intensification of efforts to fight against the cholera outbreak

The number of cholera cases is rising at an alarming rate in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, and in several departments (administrative areas) of the country, warns MSF, calling for an immediate intensification of the response to the outbreak.
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COVID-19 Vaccination - Northwest Syria - Idlib
31 Jan 24 | 01 Feb 24

After 15 years, Cholera appears again in Syria

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Tropical storm causing floods and cholera
31 Jan 24

Shortage of cholera vaccines leads to temporary suspension of two-dose strategy, as cases rise worldwide

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