Cholera: Latest MSF Updates

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

In 2016, MSF treated 20,600 people for cholera. This year, MSF has provided cholera treatments to more than 82,000 people in Yemen alone. 

Cholera is a serious risk in the aftermath of emergencies 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 1.4 to 4.3 million people worldwide, and causes between 28,000 and 142,000 deaths per year.

Doctors Without Borders'/Médecins Sans Frontières' (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.


Cholera causes profuse diarrhea and vomiting
Caused by poor sanitation, overcrowding, war, and famine.
A patient undergoing treatment can lose over 50 liters of fluid.
MSF has developed cholera treatment kits to provide rapid assistance.
MSF teams are able to limit the case fatality rate to less than one percent.


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 diarrhea and vomiting.

The infection spreads when someone ingests food or water contaminated with the feces 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 diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps.

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


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

INTERACTIVE DIAGRAM: An MSF Cholera Treatment Center

Cholera can be treated simply and successfully by immediately replacing the fluids and salts lost through vomiting and diarrhea—with prompt rehydration, less than one percent 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, MozambiqueNiger, NigeriaPakistan, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The MSF Access Campaign works to improve access to medicines and stimulate the development of urgently needed treatments. MSF Access Campaign.


An archive of MSF's scientific articles available free, with full text and in an easily searchable format. MSF Field Research website.


In 2003, seven organizations from around the world joined forces to establish DNDi, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

This page was last updated on September 28, 2016.