07/08/2011 03:55 EDT | Updated 07/08/2011 03:55 EDT

Cholera in Cameroon: An Avoidable Tragedy

Far beyond personal memories of my brush with cholera are the enduring images of utter disbelief and joy on the faces of mothers cradling their children when they realized their loved ones were not going to die.

I've been saddened to see reports from Plan Canada's staff on the ground in Cameroon of a surge in the cholera epidemic there. Largely unnoticed by Canadian media, we've been told that the number of cases in the West African country has risen to 8,450 and 281 people have died.

The real tragedy is that, despite its deadly effects, cholera remains one of the most easily prevented and treated diseases around. With immediate attention, the majority of cases can be treated through oral rehydration to replace fluid loss, a simple drink with the right mix of clean water, sugar and salts - one of the most cost-effective and proven health interventions for adults and children suffering from cholera. Our organization, Plan, has shipped 700,000 doses of oral rehydration salts to Cameroon, along with medical supplies to stock over-burdened clinics struggling to deal with the influx of cholera patients.

My exposure to this terrible disease was both up close and personal. Years ago, when I was in my 20s and working as a volunteer in an Ethiopian refugee camp for displaced Somalis, I contracted cholera from contaminated water. Trust me: it was an intense and extremely unpleasant experience -- fever, chills, violent vomiting and diarrhea -- but, fortunately for me, it was quickly diagnosed and treated, and I suffered no long-term effects. Far beyond personal memories of my brush with cholera are the enduring images of utter disbelief and joy on the faces of mothers cradling their children when they realized their loved ones were not going to die.

I was lucky as were many others in those camps. Left untreated, cholera can kill its victims within hours. The World Health Organization estimates that about 120,000 people die from the disease each year, mainly children and women - children because they dehydrate very quickly; women because they bear primary responsibility for water handling in many parts of the world.

In wealthy countries, modern water treatment and sanitation systems, health and hygiene practices have virtually eradicated cholera, which killed millions -- that's right, millions -- in global pandemics in the 19th century. But it still plagues poor regions where access to clean water is limited and waste handling and its treatment is rudimentary. In Cameroon, the common practices of using the "bush" as a toilet and collecting water from hand-dug open wells combine to create a recipe for disaster.

While having supplies on hand is critical to treat cholera, education is equally important to prevent it. Plan Cameroon has been deploying teams of community volunteers -- local people call them "cholera soldiers" -- going door-to-door raising awareness about how to avoid falling ill -- washing hands, washing fruit, using latrines, filtering and chlorinating water -- and what to do if symptoms appear. They distribute water treatment tablets and bleach to clean contaminated surfaces. Even the children are contributing, with troops of budding actors creating skits to educate their peers and parents.

The outbreak in Cameroon and the ongoing serious epidemic in Haiti -- where almost 5,000 people have died from the disease since 2010 -- have reinforced for us at Plan the long-term need for unwavering focus on providing clean water and proper sanitation.

Because cholera is an extremely resilient bacteria, once it has taken hold in a country it can easily strike again if sanitation standards lapse. Some estimate that it could take decades to remove cholera from Haiti. Building latrines at schools and teaching the children to use hand-washing stations is not glamorous work. But when the difference between life and death is some basic knowledge about how to prevent a disease that can kill in hours, it is also terribly important work.

And, in all ways, a lot more effective than treating this deadly disease after it has struck.

You can visit our website to view photos of 'Cholera Soldiers' in action and to learn more about Plan's work in water and sanitation.