The Cholera Outbreak That Linked Water Contamination and Disease

cholera outbreak

The Cholera Outbreak That Linked Water Contamination and Disease

We all know that access to clean water and sanitation is crucial to staying healthy. However, the fact that contaminated water could spread diseases like cholera was not understood until the 19th century. This pivotal discovery emerged during London’s 1854 cholera outbreak.


The History of Cholera

Cholera is an infection which causes watery diarrhoea. It is caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Severe forms of the disease can be fatal within hours if untreated. During the 19th century, cholera spread globally from the Ganges River in India. The spread of the disease resulted in six pandemics that killed millions worldwide. Cholera first struck Britain in 1831. The disease was new to Europe, so medical professionals were clueless about its transmission and treatment.


The ‘Miasma Theory’

During this period, the ‘miasma theory’ was prominent. This theory suggested that cholera spread through foul smells and bad air. Therefore, removing human waste from the streets was proposed to eliminate foul odours and stop disease transmission. This plan led to more waste flowing into the River Thames, London’s primary drinking water source. Instead of reducing cholera outbreaks, the plan caused the disease to spread even more. 


London’s 1854 Cholera Outbreak

In August 1854, a cholera outbreak erupted in Soho, London. At this point, a physician named Dr. John Snow began doubting the miasma theory. He believed that cholera was transmitted through tainted water, not bad air. Snow created a map plotting water pumps and cholera deaths to prove his theory. The map revealed a concentration of deaths around a water pump on Broad Street. Snow removed the pump handle, making it unusable, and the number of deaths declined. It was later found that a leaking cesspit containing faeces had contaminated the water supply. Despite this evidence, Snow’s theory was not widely accepted at the time.

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John Snow’s infamous ghost map, tracing cholera deaths back to a water pump on Broad Street (Red Circle).


The Great Stink of 1858

Despite Snow’s findings, the medical community remained sceptical. In the summer of 1858, high temperatures combined with sewage in the Thames produced a stench so foul it was dubbed the Great Stink. Parliament, still adhering to the miasma theory, decided to act. Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with creating a new sewage system to combat the smell and ‘bad air’. 


London’s New Sewage System

Bazalgette’s design diverted sewage from London into the Thames basin. From here, sewage could be carried to sea. The new system opened in 1865, but not all London was connected initially. In 1866, another cholera outbreak occurred in the city’s east, which had yet to be linked to the new system. This outbreak’s localised nature further proved Snow’s theory of waterborne disease transmission. Snow’s findings were finally accepted. The completion of London’s sewage system marked the end of significant cholera outbreaks in the UK.


Conclusion for Drinking Water Safety

John Snow is now considered one of the founders of epidemiology. His observations revolutionised our understanding of disease transmission. Thanks to Snow, we now recognise the importance of clean drinking water for public health. Today, Southern Scientific is dedicated to ensuring that Ireland has access to safe drinking water through accredited testing. Keep your water safe and provide peace of mind for your family with our new, easy-to-use drinking water test kit.


Follow the link to order your drinking water test today!

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