Cholera and other waterborne diseases | ActionAid UK

Cholera and other waterborne diseases

Consolata and her daughter Elizabeth carry jerry cans from a watering hole during drought in Kenya in 2017

Consolata and her daughter Elizabeth carry jerry cans from a watering hole during drought in Kenya in 2017 

Photo: Alice Oldenburg/ActionAid

What is cholera?

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. WHO (2017), Media Centre factsheet: Cholera . People living with poor sanitation are most at risk, making it a strong indicator of poverty and inequality. It can be a particular risk in emergencies when sanitation systems are inadequate or overwhelmed.

Cholera is caused by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium called Vibrio cholera.2 It can cause fever, vomiting and watery diarrhoea. In its most severe form, people experience a sudden onset of acute watery diarrhoea that can lead to death by severe dehydration.

According to the World Health Organisation there are roughly 1.3 to 4 million cases worldwide each year, and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths.3

Where is cholera found?

Cholera is most widespread in regions with poor sanitation such as parts of:

  • sub-Saharan Africa
  • south and south-east Asia
  • the Middle East
  • central America and the Caribbean.

Severe outbreaks of cholera often happen as a result of serious disasters, such as hurricanes, typhoons, or earthquakes. This is because they disrupt existing water systems, resulting in drinking and waste waters becoming mixed, which increase the risk of others contracting cholera.

A case of cholera has not originated in England and Wales for over 100 years, although occasionally travellers bring the infection back with them – six cases of cholera were reported in England and Wales during 2013/14.

How does cholera spread?

Cholera, like other waterborne diseases, can spread if food and, in particular, water become contaminated with the stools of an infected person. A very short incubation period of two hours to five days means cases can rise extremely quickly and turn into an outbreak.

Around 75% of people infected with cholera do not develop any symptoms. However, their faeces is infectious for 7 to 14 days and is shed back into the environment, where it could infect others. Cholera affects both children and adults and, unlike other diarrhoeal diseases, it can kill healthy adults within hours.

People with a weak immune system, such as malnourished children or people living with HIV, face a higher risk of dying if they catch cholera.2

Cholera can be easily treated with the quick intake of oral rehydration salts to replace lost fluids. However, if left untreated, cholera can kill quickly following the onset of symptoms, meaning promoting awareness and prevention methods is essential.



Slum-dweller collecting drinking water from a hand pump in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, India. People living with poor sanitation in overcrowded slums like these are particularly vulnerable to the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera.

Photo: Srikanth Kolari/ActionAid

How ActionAid helps prevent cholera and other waterborne diseases

Sustainable, safe, clean water systems

Essential to the prevention of waterborne diseases such as cholera is making sure people have on-going access to safe, clean water.

That's why we provide this for communities. This might take the form of a well or borehole driven by a pump, which taps into the underground stores of water, or safe and clean tanks to store water at household level.

We also train people in the community how to monitor and fix any future problems, to make sure it can be a sustainable source of water for everyone for years to come.

Prevention of water-borne diseases like cholera after emergencies

After a disaster or during conflict, the risk of cholera and other water-borne diseases increases dramatically

Reduced access to clean water and sanitation creates the perfect conditions for cholera to develop, and lots of people cramped into small spaces such as shelters or refugee camps means the disease can spread very rapidly.

Giving out hygiene kits is therefore often a vital part of our response to humanitarian crises – from the Haiti earthquake in 2010 to the mudslide in Sierra Leone in August 2017.

Hygiene and handwashing

Another reason diseases such as cholera can spread very quickly is if communities do not have a culture of washing their hands, especially in crowded places such as schools.

ActionAid supports health education projects throughout the community – providing promotional materials and training about the importance of handwashing to stop the spread of diseases, as well as the equipment itself.


Page updated 13 August 2020