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As the cholera emergency in Zimbabwe continues throughout September 2018, people in Harare face severe challenges in protecting themselves from infection.Many live in areas where raw sewage is running open in the streets or where there is no clean running water available.

So how can citizens fight the illness? It starts with understanding how the disease is spread.

What is cholera exactly?

It is a highly infectious disease which you can contract when you drink water or eat food contaminated by human faeces containing the vibrio cholera bacterium. The scary thing is the cholera organism can survive for long periods in water and ice. It also spreads fast because it can be caught so easily.

You can get cholera by ingesting the germ via your mouth and this happens when you:

  • drink contaminated water
  • eat food contaminated by dirty water, soiled hands or flies
  • eat fish or shellfish from contaminated water.

How do you know you have cholera?

The main symptoms are chronic diarrhea and vomiting which causes extreme dehydration resulting in death within a matter of hours, if not treated in time.

If you have any of the following symptoms go immediately to your local clinic, hospital or doctor:

  • profuse watery diarrhea, sometimes described as “rice-water stools”
  • vomiting
  • rapid heart rate
  • loss of skin elasticity
  • dry mucous membranes (dry mouth and eyes)
  • inability to urinate
  • low blood pressure (dizziness, lightheaded and fatigued )
  • thirst
  • muscle cramps
  • restlessness or irritability

Cholera attacks quickly and you don’t feel any real pain or even very sick. You will end up with a sudden case of severe diarrhea which usually isn’t accompanied by horrible stomach cramps but will deplete your body fast. It is for this reason that you need to get medical attention as soon as you experience any diarrhea no matter how mild it may be.

During an outbreak it would benefit you to go to the doctor even if you just feel nauseous and like you want to vomit. Better to be safe than sorry.

The incubation period of the illness - time between becoming infected and showing symptoms - can be only a few hours to 5 days but the most typical time frame is 2 to 3 days. You are most infectious during the acute stage of diarrhea and vomiting plus a few days after recovery.

Some people may carry the bacteria and spread the disease without showing symptoms themselves or even get sick. They can carry the germ for months and even years. That’s why it is important to always practice good hygiene no matter whether there is a cholera outbreak or not.

It is treatable!

The good news is cholera can be treated but you must see a doctor as soon as you show symptoms. You will receive an oral hydration solution (ORS) to address the deadly dehydration. You will also be given antibiotics which attack and kill the vibrio bacterium. This simple treatment will lead to a full and complete recovery.

It is preventable!

  • Practice good hygiene.
  • Wash hands well after going to the toilet and before preparing meals - use antibacterial cleansing products like Dettol. If you don’t have access to clean water, use a hand sanitiser.
  • People with cholera should be kept separate from others especially at childcare centres, preschools, schools and work until there has been no diarrhea for 24 hours.
  • People who are infected and work with food should only handle anything edible again 48 hours after the diarrhea phase has ended.
  • Babies, children and adults with cholera infection should not swim until there has been no diarrhea for 24 hours.
  • Severely ill patients should be isolated in hospital.
  • If you are nursing someone with cholera at home make sure the faeces and vomit is properly disposed of into the toilet. Keep the toilet bowl disinfected with a product like Dettol.
  • Once the patient has recovered clean all their linen and other items by washing in hot soapy water. Also, thoroughly clean their room. Again, use an antibacterial product such as Dettol to clean everything the patient has been in contact with.
  • Only drink water that has been boiled or disinfected with iodine or chlorine tablets. Carbonated bottled drinks are usually safe, if no ice is added because remember ice can carry the bacteria.
  • Handle food cautiously. Wash all your fruit and vegetables thoroughly before cooking them.
  • Keep a careful eye on the people you know who have been in contact with the sick.
  • Educate people to seek medical attention if you think they may have cholera.

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