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Cholera in Oman: Epidemics of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Atheer – History of Oman

By Nasr Al Busaidi

At present the world is witnessing a cholera epidemic take place in Yemen, with innocent victims succumbing to the disease, which has been brought on by the ongoing civil war. Infrastructure lies in ruins and there is a lack of potable water, while hospitals lack substantial medical equipment. International reports indicate that in Yemen more than 1,800 people have been killed, most of whom are children, while over 370,000 have been infected.

Cholera is spread via bacteria that thrives in water contaminated with human faeces. It is often transmitted through contact with vegetables, fruits and other food containing quantities of such polluted water. Those infected have to endure severe vomiting and a dryness of the body, continual diarrhea and painful convulsions. Given that very few survive it, cholera is known as the ‘blue terror.’

Those who have suffered a similar such devastating epidemic in the past are often those who are sympathetic to the suffering of others. Oman has suffered from cholera outbreaks on numerous occasions in its past, with the disease having first spread through towns and villages during the 1820s. Muscat, as the polestar of most commercial vessels coming from the Indian and African continents, was of course susceptible to infectious diseases borne by seafarers.

The beginning of the first cholera outbreak in Oman in 1821, which lead to the deaths of 10,000 people, was brought about as a result of these reasons. Colonel Jaikar of the British Consulate in Muscat wrote in 1900 that the extended Arabian desert, which forms one of the natural borders of Oman and isolates it from the Arabian Peninsula, undoubtedly serves as the greatest barrier that prevents the spread of epidemic diseases by land, adding that the sea was the only channel for communication with the outside world.

Cholera returned to Oman in 1865, causing great chaos and turmoil in the Gulf. This time the disease arrived via ships from Zanzibar. A total of 35 people arrived in Muscat carrying cholera and an epidemic quickly ensued. Cholera killed 600 people in Muscat that very year and as many as 1,700 in the city of Sur. The problem faced by the Omani government at this time in addressing the problem was exacerbated by the lack of hospitals. British authorities warned the government to take strict measures so to prevent the spread of the epidemic, such as by quarantining as much as possible and by preventing the arrival of ships from India, which at the time was suffering greatly from a cholera epidemic of its own.

In 1899 Muscat suffered yet another cholera outbreak, with over 300 cases being reported per day. This epidemic resulted from the arrival of ships carrying the disease that originated in Gwadar in Baluchistan. The French Consul in Muscat reported in November of the same year that the cholera epidemic had killed more than 200 people in Muscat and many more in Wadi Al Ma’awil, Samad Al Shan, Rustaq and Nakhl. Sultan Faisal bin Turki attempted to control the spread of the epidemic in Oman by quarantining convoys travelling from the Omani interior towards Muscat.

The fourth cholera outbreak occurred in 1904 in the Omani interior, causing the displacement of large numbers of people who were relocated in Muscat. A fifth epidemic took place in 1910, with the spread of the disease suppressed by Sultan Faisal.

 

References

  • Cholera swept some areas of the Gulf in 1821 and 1865. Dar Al Khaleej Newspaper, Wednesday, 5 July 2017, Dr. Mohammed Fares Al Fares
  • History of the epidemic in Oman in the US Journal. Walid Al Nabhani, Al Balad Magazine. 13/08/2014
  • France Channel 24, 7/7/2017

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