The practically invisible bacterium Vibrio cholerae made millions of people sick and die before it was first recognized in 1503 (Kiple, 1993). Easily transmitted through water and food, sudden large outbreaks of cholera can occur through fecal contamination of a water supply. Cholera outbreaks are often associated with a breakdown in sanitary conditions such as those following a hurricane or flood where drinking water systems are contaminated with fecal matter as pipes break and raw sewage spills out. Political and economic forces are also implicated in the spread of cholera; its spread is most often associated with inadequate sanitation and hygiene conditions.
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2001) estimates that every 8 seconds a child dies of a water-related disease and probably more than five million people die from diseases associated with contaminated water and poor sanitary conditions. Cholera and other water-borne and water-washed illnesses are particularly relevant for social science research because their control depends on understanding the human decisions and behaviors surrounding the continual transmission of the bacterium. Medical anthropologists' contributions to the study of cholera and other water-borne and water-washed diseases include research on food-handling and food-preparation practices, the ubiquitous street vending of foods, household health traditions, ethnomedical understandings of disease transmission, indigenous curing practices and beliefs, patterns of land tenure and agricultural traditions, community participation interventions, analysis of political and economic forces, and national water policy recommendations.
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