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Cholera is an acute infectious disease characterized by watery diarrhea that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, first identified by Robert Koch in 1883 during a cholera outbreak inEgypt. The name of the disease comes from a Greek word meaning “flow of bile.”

Cholera is spread by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the bacterium. Although cholera was a public health problem in the United States and Europe a hundred years ago, modern sanitation and the treatment of drinking water have virtually eliminated the disease in developed countries. Cholera outbreaks, however, still occur from time to time in less developed countries, particularly following such natural disasters as the tsunami that struck countries surrounding the Indian Ocean in December 2004. In these areas cholera is still the most feared epidemic diarrheal disease because people can die within hours of infection from dehydration due to the loss of water from the body through the bowels.

V. cholerae is a gram-negative aerobic bacillus, or rod-shaped bacterium. It has two major biotypes: classic and El Tor. El Tor is the biotype responsible for most of the cholera outbreaks reported from 1961 through the early 2000s.


Cholera is spread by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with cholera bacteria. Contamination usually occurs when human feces from a person who has the disease seeps into a community water supply. Fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated in areas where crops are fertilized with human feces. Cholera bacteria also live in warm, brackish water and can infect persons who eat raw or undercooked seafood obtained from such waters. Cholera is rarely transmitted directly from one person to another.

Cholera often occurs in outbreaks or epidemics; seven pandemics (countrywide or worldwide epidemics) of cholera have been recorded between 1817 and 2003. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that during any cholera epidemic, approximately 0.2-1% of the local population will contract the disease. Anyone can get cholera, but infants, children, and the elderly are more likely to die from the disease because they become dehydrated faster than adults. There is no particular season in which cholera is more likely to occur.

Because of an extensive system of sewage and water treatment in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, cholera is generally not a concern for visitors and residents of these countries. Between 1995 and 2000, 61 cases of cholera in American citizens were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); only 24 represented infections acquired in the United States. People visiting or living in other parts of the world, particularly on the Indian subcontinent and in parts of Africa and South America, should be aware of the potential for contracting cholera and practice prevention. Fortunately, the disease is both preventable and treatable.

Causes and symptoms

Because V. cholerae is sensitive to acid, most cholera-causing bacteria die in the acidic environment of the stomach. However, when a person has ingested food or water containing large amounts of cholera bacteria, some will survive to infect the intestines. As would be expected, antacid usage or the use of any medication that blocks acid production in the stomach would allow more bacteria to survive and cause infection.

In the small intestine, the rapidly multiplying bacteria produce a toxin that causes a large volume of water and electrolytes to be secreted into the bowels and then to be abruptly eliminated in the form of watery diarrhea. Vomiting may also occur. Symptoms begin to appear between one and three days after the contaminated food or water has been ingested.

Most cases of cholera are mild, but about one in 20 patients experience severe, potentially life-threatening symptoms. In severe cases, fluids can be lost through diarrhea and vomiting at the rate of one quart per hour. This can produce a dangerous state of dehydration unless the lost fluids and electrolytes are rapidly replaced.

Signs of dehydration include intense thirst, little or no urine output, dry skin and mouth, an absence of tears, glassy or sunken eyes, muscle cramps, weakness, and rapid heart rate. The fontanelle (soft spot on an infant’s head) will appear to be sunken or drawn in. Dehydration occurs most rapidly in the very young and the very old because they have fewer fluid reserves. A doctor should be consulted immediately any time signs of severe dehydration occur. Immediate replacement of the lost fluids and electrolytes is necessary to prevent kidney failure, coma, anddeath.

Some people are at greater risk of having a severe case of cholera if they become infected:

  • People taking proton pump inhibitors, histamine blockers, or antacids to control acidindigestion. As noted earlier, V. cholerae is sensitive to stomach acid.
  • People who have had chronic gastritis caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori.
  • People who have had a partial gastrectomy (surgical removal of a portion of the stomach).


Rapid diagnosis of cholera can be made by examining a fresh stool sample under the microscope for the presence of V. cholerae bacteria. Cholera can also be diagnosed by culturing a stool sample in the laboratory to isolate the cholera-causing bacteria. In addition, a blood test may reveal the presence of antibodies against the cholera bacteria. In areas where cholera occurs often, however, patients are usually treated for diarrhea and vomiting symptoms as if they had cholera without laboratory confirmation.


The key to treating cholera lies in preventing dehydration by replacing the fluids and electrolytes lost through diarrhea and vomiting. The discovery that rehydration can be accomplished orally revolutionized the treatment of cholera and other, similar diseases by making this simple, cost-effective treatment widely available throughout the world. The World Health Organization has developed an inexpensive oral replacement fluid containing appropriate amounts of water, sugar, and salts that is used worldwide. In cases of severe dehydration, replacement fluids must be given intravenously. Patients should be encouraged to drink when they can keep liquids down and eat when their appetite returns. Recovery generally takes three to six days.

Adults may be given the antibiotic tetracycline to shorten the duration of the illness and reduce fluid loss. The World Health Organization recommends this antibiotic treatment only in cases of severe dehydration. If antibiotics are overused, the cholera bacteria organism may become resistant to the drug, making the antibiotic ineffective in treating even severe cases of cholera. Tetracycline is not given to children whose permanent teeth have not come in because it can cause the teeth to become permanently discolored.

Other antibiotics that may be given to speed up the clearance of V. cholerae from the body include ciprofloxacin and erythromycin.

A possible complementary or alternative treatment for fluid loss caused by cholera is a plant-derived compound, an extract made from the tree bark of Croton lechleri, the Sangre de grado tree found in the South American rain forest. Researchers at a hospital research institute inCalifornia report that the extract appears to work by preventing the loss of chloride and other electrolytes from the body.


Today, cholera is a very treatable disease. Patients with milder cases of cholera usually recover on their own in three to six days without additional complications. They may eliminate the bacteria in their feces for up to two weeks. Chronic carriers of the disease are rare. With prompt fluid and electrolyte replacement, the death rate in patients with severe cholera is less than 1%. Untreated, the death rate can be greater than 50%. The difficulty in treating severe cholera does not lie in not knowing how to treat it but rather in getting medical care to the sick in underdeveloped areas of the world where medical resources are limited.


The best form of cholera prevention is to establish good sanitation and waste treatment systems. In the absence of adequate sewage treatment, the following guidelines should be followed to reduce the possibility of infection:

  • Boil it. Drink and brush teeth only with water that has been boiled or treated with chlorine or iodine tablets. Safe drinks include coffee and tea made with boiling water or carbonated bottled water and carbonated soft drinks.
  • Cook it. Eat only thoroughly cooked foods, and eat them while they are still hot. Avoid eating food from street vendors.
  • Peel it. Eat only fruit or nuts with a thick intact skin or shell that is removed immediately before eating.
  • Forget it. Do not eat raw foods such as oysters or ceviche. Avoid salads and raw vegetables. Do not use untreated ice cubes in otherwise safe drinks.
  • Stay out of it. Do not swim or fish in polluted water.

Preventive measures following natural disasters include guaranteeing the purity of community drinking water, either by large-scale chlorination and boiling, or by bringing in bottled or purified water from the outside. Other important preventive measures at the community level include provision for the safe disposal of human feces and good food hygiene.

Because cholera is one of the few infectious diseases that can be spread by human remains (through fecal matter leaking from corpses into the water supply), emergency workers who handle human remains are at increased risk of infection. It is considered preferable to bury corpses rather than to cremate them, however, and to allow survivors time to conduct appropriate burial ceremonies or rituals. The remains should be disinfected prior to burial, and buried at least 90 feet (30 m) away from sources of drinking water.

A cholera vaccine exists that can be given to travelers and residents of areas where cholera is known to be active, but the vaccine is not highly effective. It provides only 25-50% immunity, and then only for a period of about six months. The vaccine is never given to infants under six months of age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not currently recommend cholera vaccination for travelers. Residents of cholera-plagued areas should discuss the value of the vaccine with their doctor.

A newer cholera vaccine known as Peru-15 underwent phase II trials in the summer of 2003. As of mid-2004, the manufacturer is planning phase III trials in a developing country and in travelers. Peru-15 is classified as a single-dose recombinant vaccine.

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