Gabriel Garcia Marquez sets Love in the Time of Cholera in a historical time of cholera. The novel spans the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, and medical history shows that in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, over 200,000 people probably died of cholera in the Caribbean. Many of Marquez's details are reinforced by the history of these epidemics that ravaged the Caribbean.
The first epidemic hit Cuba in 1833, killing more than 22,000 in seven months. The next epidemic killed between forty and fifty thousand people in Jamaica, plus twenty thousand in Barbados, all in the first half of the 1850s. For both islands, that was a loss of about fifteen percent of their populations.
On these islands, whites made up only a very small number of those killed, both actually and proportionately. This was mainly because of the disproportionate poverty of the non-white populations. As in the novel, cholera hit the poor much harder than the wealthy. This is mainly because of the lack of sanitary conditions. As Kenneth Kiple points out, in the 19th-century Caribbean, human excrement was disposed of casually if at all, and the poor were most likely to drink from the contaminated water. As in the story, the rich had their own private, much safer, cisterns and wells.
At the time that Love in the Time of Cholera is set, cholera had a fifty percent mortality rate. The symptoms included acute vomiting, very acute diarrhea, muscle cramps, ruptured capillaries that made skin appear blue, and lethargy. Death usually came quickly and brutally. Sadly, those who underwent medical treatment were far more likely to die. The treatment at the time was bloodletting and purging by inducing diarrhea and vomiting, which is diametrically opposed to the rehydration that is now used to cure the disease. That the treatment only sped up the deterioration of the victim is especially interesting considering the importance of doctors and medicine in the novel.