Cholera is an acute illness characterized by watery diarrhea that is caused by the bacterium Vibro cholerae. Cholera is spread by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the bacteria. 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. In third world countries, however, cholera is still common.
Cholera is spread by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminatedwith cholera bacteria. Contamination usually occurs when human feces from aperson who has the disease seeps into a community water supply. Fruits and vegetables can 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. 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. People visiting or living inother 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.
Because V. cholerae bacteria are 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.
In the small intestine, the rapidly multiplying bacteria produce a toxin thatcauses a large volume of water and electrolytes (electrically charged molecules in solution) to be secreted into the bowels and then to be abruptly eliminated as 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 1 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 electrolytesare rapidly replaced. Dehydration occurs most rapidly in the very young and the very old because they have fewer fluid reserves. Immediate replacement ofthe lost fluids and electrolytes is necessary to prevent kidney failure, coma, and death.
Rapid diagnosis of cholera can be made in the laboratory by examining a freshstool sample under the microscope for the presence of V. cholerae 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 thatrehydration 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. WHO has developed an inexpensive oral replacement fluid containing appropriate amounts of water, sugar, and saltsthat is used worldwide. In cases of severe dehydration, replacement fluids must be given intravenously.
Adults may be given the antibiotic tetracycline to shorten the duration of the illness and reduce fluid loss. WHO 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 tochildren whose permanent teeth have not come in because it can cause the teeth to become permanently discolored.
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 is not in knowing how to treat it, but in getting medical care to ill people in underdeveloped areas of the world where medical resources are limited.
The best form of cholera prevention is to establish good sanitation and wastetreatment systems. In the absence of adequate sewage treatment, precautionssuch as boiling water, eating only well-cooked foods, and peeling fruit and nuts before eating them help to reduce the possibility of infection.
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 sixmonths. The vaccine is never given to infants under six months of age. The United States 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.