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Rest assured! - Epidemiologist says cholera can't be found in a cemetery over 150 years old

Published:Wednesday | December 28, 2016 | 12:10 AMJason Cross
From left: Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton in discussion with Dr Karen Webster Kerr, principal medical officer for epidemiology, and Professor Winston Davidson, head of the School of Public Health at the University of Technology, Jamaica, during a town hall meeting on cholera, held recently at Mayfair Hotel, St Andrew.

A health ministry official has attempted to reassure residents of the surrounding cholera cemetery, located at the corner of Waterloo and West Kings House roads, that there is no way cholera could still be present in the cemetery.

According to the ministry's principal officer for epidemiology, Dr Karen Webster-Kerr, the disease requires aquatic life to survive. She was speaking at a recent town hall meeting on cholera, held at the Mayfair Hotel in St Andrew, where development plans for the cemetery lands were discussed.

Cholera is a bacterial diarrhoeal illness that is caused by the fibre cholera bacteria and characterised by profuse, non-bloody, watery diarrhoea.

There may be associated vomiting that may lead to severe dehydration and possibly death.

"The vibrio cholera is an aquatic bacteria. It means that it needs other aquatic life for its survival. It is sensitive to heat and dries easily. It doesn't like harsh environmental conditions. It is non spore forming, meaning that it won't survive very long," she said.

In contaminated environment such as in soil, cholera lasts up to a week. In well water (it can last) about 24 days.




A dormant phase may set in, causing it to live a maximum of 700 days, roughly two years.

"In summary, cholera does not persist in the environment for long periods. It is not possible to get cholera from a cemetery that is over 150 years old. As the national epidemiologist, my concern where cholera is concerned is what is happening around us. Our neighbours have cholera and we must always be vigilant about that," said Webster Kerr.

She added: "In the America's in 2016, there is cholera, and our neighbour Haiti has cholera and with the passage of (Hurricane) Matthew, the number of cases are increasing. This is why we have heightened surveillance for cholera in our communities and in our hospitals. We report on this weekly." Webster Kerr added.

She further noted that the condition remains a class one disease and should be reported upon suspicion.

The last outbreak of cholera in Jamaica was part of the second pandemic of cholera, which started in India and went on from 1829 to around 1852.

The first place in the Caribbean the disease came to was Cuba, then on to the English-speaking Caribbean in the late 1840s into the 1850s.

Jamaica recorded its first case of cholera in 1849, a soldier in Port Royal. This spread to the Kingston barracks and a few other soldiers fell ill with the disease. Roughly, two or three residents living around the barracks at that time also contracted cholera. After those few cases, things quieted until 1850, when weather conditions quickly aided the spread of cholera throughout the then 22 parishes.

Jamaica's population at that time was around 400,000. About 67,000 persons islandwide were infected with cholera, from which roughly 40,000 died.

Cholera wiped out about one- third of the population of Port Royal and almost 70 per cent of residents of Port Maria in St Mary.