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Cholera: What is it and how can you avoid getting sick?

- Professor Craig Sheridan

Water expert shares guidelines on how to purify water at home in areas where there is uncertainty over water quality or poor sanitation.

Cholera has appeared across Gauteng and South Africa causing serious sickness and deaths. Although municipal water is still regarded as safe to use, there are areas that are vulnerable due to poor investment in water and sanitation. 

What is cholera?

Cholera is caused by a germ, which is found in the faecal matter (poop) of sick people.  It is highly contagious and can spread by contact mainly from drinking contaminated water, food, or from unwashed hands. 

The symptoms of cholera are watery diarrhoea (runny tummy), vomiting and leg cramps. If you get any of these symptoms, go to a health care provider or your nearest clinic immediately and tell them your symptoms. Try to rehydrate yourself.

To prevent cholera, you should wash your hands often and take steps to ensure your food and water are safe for use. Following these simple steps greatly reduces your risk of getting cholera in areas where cholera is spreading. If you are uncertain about your drinking water quality, these 5 steps will help to make sure it is safe.

  1. Be sure you drink and use safe water
  • Use bottled water to brush your teeth, wash and prepare food and drinks. If bottled water is not available, use water that has been properly boiled, chlorinated or purified (see below how to purify water).
  • Use bottled water with unbroken seals.
  • Water from pipes, drinks sold in cups or bags, and ice may not be safe.
  • If you think your water may not be safe—treat it with a chlorine product, boil it, treat with bleach, or purify it. (This is explained below)

How to purify your water

Boil water

Boil water for at least 1 minute. Preferably 2 minutes. This means once the bubbles start, wait for at least one minute.  Once the water is boiled, cover it and keep it safe from being re-contaminated.

Treat with Bleach (Chlorine)

If the water is cloudy, first pass it through a filter paper (like a coffee filter paper or using a mutton cloth folded over 8 times). Treat your water with a bleach like the “original Jik”, unscented. Do not use scented products.  Add 2 drops for every litre or add one teaspoon to 25L of water. Leave for half an hour. It should smell slightly of bleach. If it doesn’t repeat the process.

Treat with Sunshine

If the water is cloudy, first pass it through a filter paper (like a coffee filter paper or using a mutton cloth folded over 8 times). Following this, put the water into a clear plastic bottle (like a Coke bottle with the label removed) smaller than 2L and leave the bottle in the direct sun for at least 8 hours. A flat roof made of corrugated iron is the perfect place for this. Put a few bottles on the roof so that you can get enough for today and also for the next 2 days. In cloudy weather the bottles must be on the roof for AT LEAST 2 DAYS.

  1. Wash your hands often with soap and safe water
  • Wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food. If you don’t have safe water, use hand sanitiser.
  • Wash your hands before and after eating food or feeding your children.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet.
  • Wash your hands after cleaning your child’s nappy and bottom. Don’t change their nappies where you prepare your food.
  • Wash your hands after taking care of someone who is sick with diarrhoea.
  1. Use toilets

Use toilets or safely managed sanitation facilities to get rid of faeces (poop) if you can. This includes disposal of children’s poop.

Wash hands with soap and safe water after going to the bathroom or use sanitiser.

If you don’t have access to a toilet do not poop in the river or near any water source (taps, rivers etc).  Use communal chemical toilets and follow the rules. Do not put plastic bags or disposable nappies in chemical toilets.

  1. Boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it

Cook food well, keep it covered, eat it hot, and peel fruits and vegetables.

Eat foods that have been thoroughly cooked and are still hot and steaming.

Avoid raw vegetables and fruits that cannot be peeled like lettuce.

  1. Clean up safely

Clean your food preparation areas and kitchenware with soap and treated water and let them dry completely before reuse.

Try to bath yourself and wash clothes and nappies away from drinking water sources.

Clean and disinfect toilets and surfaces contaminated with poop. Clean the surface with a soap solution to remove solids.  Take a 1L bottle with 100mL of Jik and top up with water. Use this to wipe down the surfaces afterwards by pouring onto the washing cloth. When finished cleaning up, safely dispose of soapy water and dirty rags. Wash hands again with soap and safe water after cleaning and disinfecting.

This resource was compiled by Professor Craig Sheridan, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Water Research and Director: Centre in Water Research and Development at the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.