Cholera: a 19th Century Disease Strikes the 21st


The death toll from Zimbabwe’s recent cholera outbreak has just reached 3,028. This is an increase of 1,000 in just one week, and World Health Organization officials fear the water-borne disease will spread to nearby Botswana and South Africa.

Horrific, yes. But wait, isn’t cholera one of those historical diseases, like smallpox and the plague, that were supposedly killed off by the magic of modern medicine like a hundred years ago?

Well, no. And yes.

  • Cholera is a bacterial disease spread through contaminated water. The most common (and grossest) symptom is diarrhea, which can be so severe that left untreated can kill you in hours. 
  • During the 19th century, cholera was like the plague, and six pandemics across the world claimed millions of lives, including famous people like Russian composer Tchaikovsky and James Polk, our 11th president.
  • Cholera used to be super-widespread because people bathed in the same water they drank (yuck). In 1854, London physician John Snow figured out that the germies were carried through the drinking water.
  • Now, modern sewage and water-treatment technology (like, don’t sh*t where you drink, duh), has practically killed off cholera in all industrialized countries. The last major US epidemic was in 1911.
  • Cholera is actually really easy to treat. Sufferers can rehydrate with a cheap and easy rehydration antibiotic that is available from the WHO and humanitarian organizations, as well as your local doctor if you happen to pick it up abroad (which you probably won’t).
  • So, WTF in Zimbabwe? The current outbreak is the worst cholera epidemic in 14 years, since 25,000 people died in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. With dictator Robert Mugabe dragging his country into chaos, the infrastructure has totally disintegrated: poor hygiene + backed-up sewers + military obstacles to humanitarian groups = a petri dish in which cholera flourishes.


Word Up:

By the Numbers:
3,028 – number of people killed by cholera in Zimbabwe since August

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