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Medical experts often disagree, but one fact is universally accepted -- it is unhealthy to drink human excrement for long periods of time.

One of the first physicians to reach this insight was John Snow. After studying maps of cholera deaths in London during 1864, he singlehandedly halted a raging epidemic by removing the pump handle from a contaminated well. It was later discovered that the well was built over a cholera-infected cesspool. (Skeptical city planners insisted that he replace the handle after the epidemic was over.)

The bacteria responsible was Vibrio cholera, a wiggly germ capable of making a toxin that blocks water absorption in the bowel, producing uncontrollable diarrhea that enables the germ to spread widely -- particularly if your latrine empties into your city's water supply. Steady vomiting combined with up to five gallons a day of "rice water" diarrhea can cause dehydration so severe that cholera patients can die of dehydration within two hours of getting sick. Fortunately the cure is not exotic -- a six quarts of Gatorade or IV saline is all you really need.

But this knowledge does not not prevent 100,000 people a year from dying of cholera. As many as 5 million are infected, particularly in places like Africa and Haiti, where flooding contaminates reservoirs and modern sanitation is unavailable. Cholera is often the unpleasant side effect of natural disasters like tornados and earthquakes, although an occasional case pops up in fancy restaurants that serve raw oysters. A stool culture makes the diagnosis.

If you've chosen to live in a tent camp in Haiti, you can -- like John Snow -- simply boil all the water you drink for the rest of your life. Or you can choose advice that has helped millions -- and only drink stuff you find in an unopened beer bottles.

Alternatively, you can get the cholera vaccine. Then like your pet dog, you can fearlessly drink water directly from the toilet.

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