One October night in 2010, Jacqueline Olonville woke up with sharp pains in her stomach. She rushed to the toilet behind her home in the village of Bocozelle, Haiti, but she could not relieve the pain or stop the relentless diarrhea that soon followed. When she tried to stand up, she began vomiting. Her legs gave out underneath her. Some of her older children heard her cries. They borrowed a neighbor’s motorbike and rushed her across the pitted dirt roads to the nearest hospital. There, they found a panicky staff already tending to dozens of others in similar distress. It was a massive outbreak of cholera.
The World Health Organization labels cholera as “easily treatable.” The main remedy is rehydration, often with oral salt solutions and sometimes with intravenous fluids and a course of antibiotics. But treatment works only if it is provided soon after infection, and many in Bocozelle never reached the clinic in time. Hospital staff, desperate to avoid further contamination, quickly placed the bodies of the dead in bags and took them to a pit to be buried with other cholera victims.
In both its origins and its effects, cholera is a decidedly foul disease. The process starts when the bacterium Vibrio cholera gets into a water supply through fecal contamination. Anyone who drinks the water can become infected, which causes acute watery diarrhea, which, in turn, spreads the pathogen with ruthless and disgusting proficiency. Left untreated, the diarrhea caused by cholera quickly drains the body and can cause death within hours. Extremely virulent, and with a short incubation period of two hours to five days, cholera also moves quickly, potentially spreading across an entire region in just days.
To understand what that means, take the case of Haiti. Before mid-October 2010, hospital admission records along the valley of the Artibonite River, Haiti’s longest river, show only occasional treatments of patients for diarrhea. Then, on October 18, an agricultural worker fell ill with diarrhea and was declared dead on arrival at