Sunday, July 09, 2006



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases

In January 1991, epidemic cholera appeared in South America and quickly spread to several countries. A few cases have occurred in the United States among persons who traveled to South America or ate contaminated food brought back by travelers.Cholera has been very rare in industrialized nations for the last 100 years; however, the disease is still common today in other parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. Although cholera can be life-threatening, it is easily prevented and treated. In the United States, because of advanced water and sanitation systems, cholera is not a major threat; however, everyone, especially travelers, should be aware of how the disease is transmitted and what can be done to prevent it.

What is cholera?

Cholera is an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes it can be severe. Approximately one in 20 infected persons has severe disease characterized by profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps. In these persons, rapid loss of body fluids leads to dehydration and shock. Without treatment, death can occur within hours.

How does a person get cholera?

A person may get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the cholera bacterium. In an epidemic, the source of the contamination is usually the feces of an infected person. The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water. The cholera bacterium may also live in the environment in brackish rivers and coastal waters. Shellfish eaten raw have been a source of cholera, and a few persons in the United States have contracted cholera after eating raw or undercooked shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico. The disease is not likely to spread directly from one person to another; therefore, casual contact with an infected person is not a risk for becoming ill.

What is the risk for cholera in the United States?

In the United States, cholera was prevalent in the 1800s but has been virtually eliminated by modern sewage and water treatment systems. However, as a result of improved transportation, more persons from the United States travel to parts of Africa, Asia, or Latin America where epidemic cholera is occurring . U.S. travelers to areas with epidemic cholera may be exposed to the cholera bacterium. In addition, travelers may bring contaminated seafood back to the United States; foodborne outbreaks have been caused by contaminated seafood brought into this country by travelers.

What should travelers do to avoid getting cholera?

The risk for cholera is very low for U.S. travelers visiting areas with epidemic cholera. When simple precautions are observed, contracting the disease is unlikely.

All travelers to areas where cholera has occured should observe the following recommendations:

Drink only water that you have boiled or treated with chlorine or iodine. Other safe beverages include tea and coffee made with boiled water and carbonated, bottled beverages with no ice.

Eat only foods that have been thoroughly cooked and are still hot, or fruit that you have peeled yourself.
Avoid undercooked or raw fish or shellfish, including ceviche.
Make sure all vegetables are cooked avoid salads.
Avoid foods and beverages from street vendors.
Do not bring perishable seafood back to the United States.

A simple rule of thumb is "Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it. "

Is a vaccine available to prevent cholera?

A recently developed oral vaccine for cholera is licensed and available in other countries (Dukoral from SBL Vaccines). The vaccine appears to provide somewhat better immunity and have fewer adverse effects than the previously available vaccine. However, CDC does not recommend cholera vaccines for most travelers, nor is the vaccine available in the United States . Further information about Dukoral can be obtained from the manufacturers:

Dukoral ® SBL Vaccin AB, SE-105 21 Stockholm, Swedentelephone +46-8-7351000,e-mail:


Can cholera be treated?

Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Patients can be treated with oral rehydration solution, a prepackaged mixture of sugar and salts to be mixed with water and drunk in large amounts. This solution is used throughout the world to treat diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement. With prompt rehydration, fewer than 1% of cholera patients die. Antibiotics shorten the course and diminish the severity of the illness, but they are not as important as rehydration. Persons who develop severe diarrhea and vomiting in countries where cholera occurs should seek medical attention promptly.

How long will the current epidemic last?

Predicting how long a Cholera epidemic will last is difficult. The cholera epidemic in Africa has lasted more than 30 years. In areas with inadequate sanitation, a cholera epidemic cannot be stopped immediately, and, although far fewer cases have been reported from Latin America and Asia in recent years, there are no signs that the global Cholera pandemic will end soon. Major improvements in sewage and water treatment systems are needed in many countries to prevent future epidemic cholera.

What is the U.S. government doing to combat cholera?

U.S. and international public health authorities are working to enhance surveillance for cholera, investigate cholera outbreaks, and design and implement preventive measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigates epidemic cholera wherever it occurs and trains laboratory workers in proper techniques for identification of V. cholerae. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cholera to public health officials and educates the public about effective preventive measures. The U.S. Agency for International Development is sponsoring some of the international government activities and is providing medical supplies to affected countries. The Environmental Protection Agency is working with water and sewage treatment operators in the United States to prevent contamination of water with the cholera bacterium. The Food and Drug Administration is testing imported and domestic shellfish for V. cholerae and monitoring the safety of U.S. shellfish beds through the shellfish sanitation program. With cooperation at the state and local, national, and international levels, assistance will be provided to countries where cholera is present, and the risk to U.S. residents will remain small.

Where can a traveler get information about cholera?

The global picture of cholera changes periodically, so travelers should seek updated information on countries of interest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a travelers' information telephone line on which callers can receive recent information on cholera and other diseases of concern to travelers. Data for this service are obtained from the World Health Organization. The number is 877-FYI-TRIP (394-8747) or check out :


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Cholera - General Fact Sheet from World Health Organization


Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It has a short incubation period, from less than one day to five days, and produces an enterotoxin that causes a copious, painless, watery diarrhoea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly given. Vomiting also occurs in most patients.

Most persons infected with V. cholerae do not become ill, although the bacterium is present in their faeces for 7-14 days. When illness does occur, more than 90% of episodes are of mild or moderate severity and are difficult to distinguish clinically from other types of acute diarrhoea. Less than 10% of ill persons develop typical cholera with signs of moderate or severe dehydration.


The vibrio responsible for the seventh pandemic, now in progress, is known as V. cholerae O1, biotype El Tor. The current seventh pandemic began in 1961 when the vibrio first appeared as a cause of epidemic cholera in Celebes (Sulawesi), Indonesia. The disease then spread rapidly to other countries of eastern Asia and reached Bangladesh in 1963, India in 1964, and the USSR, Iran and Iraq in 1965-1966.

In 1970 cholera invaded West Africa, which had not experienced the disease for more than 100 years. The disease quickly spread to a number of countries and eventually became endemic in most of the continent. In 1991 cholera struck Latin America, where it had also been absent for more than a century. Within the year it spread to 11 countries, and subsequently throughout the continent.

Until 1992, only V. cholerae serogroup O1 caused epidemic cholera. Some other serogroups could cause sporadic cases of diarrhoea, but not epidemic cholera. Late that year, however, large outbreaks of cholera began in India and Bangladesh that were caused by a previously unrecognized serogroup of V. cholerae, designated O139, synonym Bengal. Isolation of this vibrio has now been reported from 11 countries in South-East Asia. It is still unclear whether V. cholerae O139 will extend to other regions, and careful epidemiological monitoring of the situation is being maintained.


Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food. Sudden large outbreaks are usually caused by a contaminated water supply. Only rarely is cholera transmitted by direct person-to-person contact. In highly endemic areas, it is mainly a disease of young children, although breastfeeding infants are rarely affected.
Vibrio cholerae is often found in the aquatic environment and is part of the normal flora of brackish water and estuaries. It is often associated with algal blooms (plankton), which are influenced by the temperature of the water. Human beings are also one of the reservoirs of the pathogenic form of Vibrio cholerae.


When cholera occurs in an unprepared community, case-fatality rates may be as high as 50% -- usually because there are no facilities for treatment, or because treatment is given too late. In contrast, a well-organized response in a country with a well established diarrhoeal disease control programme can limit the case-fatality rate to less than 1%.

Most cases of diarrhoea caused by V. cholerae can be treated adequately by giving a solution of oral rehydration salts (the WHO/UNICEF standard sachet). During an epidemic, 80-90% of diarrhoea patients can be treated by oral rehydration alone, but patients who become severely dehydrated must be given intravenous fluids.

In severe cases, an effective antibiotic can reduce the volume and duration of diarrhoea and the period of vibrio excretion. Tetracycline is the usual antibiotic of choice, but resistance to it is increasing. Other antibiotics that are effective when V. cholerae are sensitive to them include cotrimoxazole, erythromycin, doxycycline, chloramphenicol and furazolidone.

Epidemic control and preventive measures

When cholera appears in a community it is essential to ensure three things: hygienic disposal of human faeces, an adequate supply of safe drinking water, and good food hygiene. Effective food hygiene measures include cooking food thoroughly and eating it while still hot; preventing cooked foods from being contaminated by contact with raw foods, including water and ice, contaminated surfaces or flies; and avoiding raw fruits or vegetables unless they are first peeled. Washing hands after defecation, and particularly before contact with food or drinking water, is equally important.

Routine treatment of a community with antibiotics, or "mass chemoprophylaxis", has no effect on the spread of cholera, nor does restricting travel and trade between countries or between different regions of a country. Setting up a cordon sanitaire at frontiers uses personnel and resources that should be devoted to effective control measures, and hampers collaboration between institutions and countries that should unite their efforts to combat cholera.

Limited stocks of two oral cholera vaccines that provide high-level protection for several months against cholera caused by V. cholerae O1 have recently become available in a few countries. Both are suitable for use by travellers but they have not yet been used on a large scale for public health purposes. Use of this vaccine to prevent or control cholera outbreaks is not recommended because it may give a false sense of security to vaccinated subjects and to health authorities, who may then neglect more effective measures.

In 1973 the WHO World Health Assembly deleted from the International Health Regulations the requirement for presentation of a cholera vaccination certificate. Today, no country requires proof of cholera vaccination as a condition for entry, and the International Certificate of Vaccination no longer provides a specific space for recording cholera vaccinations.

Trade in food products coming from cholera-infected regions

The publication "Guidelines for Cholera Control", available through WHO's Distribution and Sales Unit, states the following:

"Vibrio cholerae 01 can survive on a variety of foodstuffs for up to five days at ambient temperature and up to 10 days at 5-10 degrees Celsius. The organism can also survive freezing. Low temperatures, however, limit proliferation of the organism and thus may prevent the level of contamination from reaching an infective dose.

"The cholera vibrio is sensitive to acidity and drying, and commercially prepared acidic (ph 4.5 or less) or dried foods are therefore without risk. Gamma irradiation and temperatures above 70 degrees Celsius also destroy the vibrio and foods processed by these methods, according to the standards of the Codex Alimentarius, and

"The foods that cause greatest concern to importing countries are seafood and vegetables that may be consumed raw. However, only rare cases of cholera have occurred as a result of eating food, usually seafood, transported across international borders by individuals.

"...Indeed, although individual cases and clusters of cases have been reported, WHO has not documented a significant outbreak of cholera resulting from commercially imported food."

In summary, although there is a theoretical risk of cholera transmission with international food trade, the weight of evidence suggests that this risk is very small and can normally be dealt with by means other than an embargo on importation.

WHO believes that the best way to deal with food imports from cholera-affected areas is for importing countries to agree, with food exporters, on good hygienic practices which need to be followed during food handling and processing to prevent, eliminate or minimize the risk of any potential contamination; and to set up arrangements to obtain assurance that these measures are adequately carried out.

At present, WHO has no information that food commercially imported from affected countries has been implicated in outbreaks of cholera in importing countries. The isolated cases of cholera, that have been related to imported food, have been associated with food which had been in the possession of individual travellers. Therefore, it may be concluded that food produced under good manufacturing practices poses only a negligible risk for cholera transmission. Consequently, WHO believes that food import restrictions, based on the sole fact that cholera is epidemic or endemic in a country, are not justified.

For more information contact:

WHO Media centre Telephone: +41 22 791 2222

World Health Organization: Cholera

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?