What is cholera?
Cholera is an acute, infectious disease caused by the consumption of water or food contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.
Cholera is a public health concern in developing countries all over the world, especially in Africa, south Asia, and Latin America. Cases among travelers to and from developed countries are rare; however, some outbreaks in the United States have been caused by contaminated seafood brought into the country by travelers.
What causes cholera?
Vibrio cholerae is usually found in impure water supplies because of the unsanitary disposal of excrement. Person-to-person transmission is rare. It is usually transmitted by consuming contaminated food or water from:
Municipal water supplies
Ice made from municipal water
Foods and beverages bought from street vendors
Vegetables irrigated with fresh sewage
Raw or inadequately cooked fish and seafood taken from sewage-polluted waters
How does the Vibrio cholerae bacterium affect the body?
The bacterium that causes cholera is usually very sensitive to the acids present in the stomach and digestive tract. Small amounts of bacteria are killed by the stomach acids before they can establish themselves in the body. Approximately 75 percent of people infected will not develop any symptoms; however, the bacteria is still present in their feces for seven to 14 days, during which time they can infect other people, particularly if they have poor personal hygiene habits. Eighty percent of people who do develop symptoms will develop a mild to moderate gastroenteritis. The remaining 20 percent of those infected will develop severe cholera with profuse watery diarrhea referred to as "rice-water stools," and sometimes vomiting, both of which lead to severe dehydration. Signs and symptoms may include tachycardia (a very rapid heart rate), dry mucous membranes, hypotension (a very low blood pressure), and muscle cramps. If untreated, the severe dehydration can ultimately lead to shock and death. People with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for dying from cholera infection.
Can cholera be prevented?
The best preventives for cholera are:
Only use water that has been boiled or chemically disinfected for:
Drinking, or preparing beverages such as tea or coffee
Washing face and hands
Washing fruits and vegetables
Washing eating utensils and food preparation equipment
Washing the surfaces of tins, cans, and bottles that contain food or beverages
Do not eat food or drink beverages from unknown sources
Any raw food could be contaminated, including:
Fruits, vegetables, salad greens
Unpasteurized milk and milk products
Any fish caught in tropical reefs rather than the open ocean
No cholera vaccine is available in the U.S., although two oral vaccines are available abroad. Currently, no country requires the cholera vaccine for entry if arriving from cholera-infected countries.
Treatment for cholera
For diarrhea that is worse than normal, it is best for the traveler to consult a doctor rather than try self-medication. Seek medical help if diarrhea becomes severe and watery, or if vomiting occurs.
Specific treatment for cholera will be determined by your doctor based on:
Your overall health and medical history
Extent of the disease
Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
Expectations for the course of the disease
Your opinion or preference
Treatment for cholera may involve rehydration with:
Oral rehydration solutions
Intravenous solutions in the most severe cases
Treatment with antibiotics is sometimes used to decrease the duration of illness, but are not thought to be necessary for successful treatment.