Cholera is caused by a bacterium, vibrio cholerae, which produces a toxin that affects the intestines. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes it can be severe. 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. The severity of the disease is mainly correlated to the risk of severe dehydration, which can lead to death in a few hours. Treatment thus relies on a rehydration adapted to the patient’s condition.
This bacterium has been at the origin of devastating epidemics worldwide throughout history. 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 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.
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. Antibiotics shorten the course and diminish the severity of the illness, but they are not as important as rehydration.