Cholera, severe infectious disease endemic in India and some other tropical countries and occasionally spreading to temperate climates. The symptoms of cholera are diarrhea and the loss of water and salts in the stool. In severe cholera, the patient develops violent diarrhea with characteristic “rice-water stools,” vomiting, thirst, muscle cramps, and sometimes circulatory collapse. Death can occur as quickly as a few hours after the onset of symptoms. The mortality rate is more than 50 percent in untreated cases, but falls to less than 1 percent with proper treatment.
The causative agent of cholera is the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which was discovered in 1883 by the German physician and bacteriologist Robert Koch. Virtually bacteria from the stools of cholera patients from food or water contaminate the only means by which a person can be infected. Prevention of the disease is therefore a matter of sanitation. Cholera epidemics swept through Europe and the United States in the 19th century but did not recur in those areas after improvement of the water supply.
Control of the disease is still a major medical problem in several Asian countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 78 percent of the population in less developed countries is without clean water and 85 percent without adequate fecal waste disposal. Epidemics of cholera occurred in 1953 in Calcutta, India; between 1964 and 1967 in South Vietnam; among Bangladeshi refugees fleeing to India during the civil war of 1971; and in Peru in 1991. The 1971 outbreak killed about 6500 persons.
Treatment consists mainly of intravenous or oral replacement of fluids and salts. The WHO has made packets for dilution containing the correct mixture of sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, and glucose widely available. Most patients recover in three to six days. Antibiotics such as tetracycline, ampicillin, chloramphenicol, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole can shorten the duration of the disease.
A vaccine made from killed bacteria is commercially available and offers partial protection for a period of three to six months after immunization. Experimental studies have shown that the cholera bacterium produces a toxin that causes the small intestine to secrete large amounts of fluid, which leads to the fluid loss characteristic of the disease. This has led to work on a vaccine containing inactivated toxin.
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