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By Stewart Emmens on

The Return Of 'King Cholera'

The cholera outbreak in Haiti is spreading rapidly and seems certain to result in many tens of thousands of cases. So far, more than 1,400 people have died since the first cases were confirmed in October. This ongoing situation is a tragic modern-day reminder of the deadly power of this disease – a disease which in Britain is historically associated with the overcrowded slums and poor sanitation of Victorian towns and cities.

An undertaker
An undertaker awaits an upturn in business - caricature from 1854 (Science Museum)

Cholera provided a deadly backdrop to life in Victorian Britain and it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands over the century – mainly during the four major epidemics of 1832-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866. While it killed far less than some other diseases of the period, such as influenza and tuberculosis, the rapid onset of symptoms and their violent, transformative impact on the body meant that it was feared more than most.

Medicine chest
Victorian medicine chest for cholera, containing both opium and laudanum (Science Museum)

Left untreated, the disease was nearly always fatal. It wasn’t known how it was transmitted and there was little in the way of effective treatment available during the British outbreaks of the 1800s. Not that there weren’t claims to the contrary made by some practitioners and makers of quack medicines.Their treatments varied from purging, bleeding and administering strong opiate drugs, to homeopathy and use of charms and amulets. One thing that could have helped – the rapid rehydration of the body – was not part of such offerings. 

Three amulets
Amulets carried to ward off cholera, European, 19th century (Science Museum)

Today, cholera is relatively easy to treat and outbreaks are preventable through following basic levels of hygiene. There is also an effective vaccine. But new cases must be treated quickly as it can be fatal within hours of the first symptoms. Haiti – a desperately poor country still reeling from January’s earthquake – is proving that cholera can still find environments to thrive in, even in the 21st century.