Cholera

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is the history of cholera?

Cholera has likely been affecting humans for many centuries. Reports of cholera-like disease have been found in India as early as 1000 AD. Cholera is a term derived from Greek khole (illness from bile) and later in the 14th century to colere (French) and choler (English). In the 17th century, cholera was a term used to describe a severe gastrointestinal disorder involving diarrhea and vomiting. There were many outbreaks of cholera, and by the 16th century, some were being noted in historical writings. England had several in the 19th century, the most notable being in 1854, when Dr. John Snow did a classic study in London that showed a main source of the disease (resulting in about 500 deaths in 10 days) came from at least one of the major water sources for London residents termed the "Broad Street pump." The pump handle was removed, and the cholera deaths slowed and stopped. The pump is still present as a landmark in London. Although Dr. Snow did not discover the cause of cholera, he did show how the disease could be spread and how to stop a local outbreak. This was the beginning of modern epidemiologic studies. The last reference shows the map Dr. Snow used to identify the pump site.

V. cholerae was first isolated as the cause of cholera by Filippo Pacini in 1854, but his discovery was not widely known until Robert Koch (who also discovered the cause of tuberculosis), working independently 30 years later, publicized the knowledge and the means of fighting the disease. The history of cholera repeats itself. The U.S. National Library of Medicine houses original documents about multiple cholera outbreaks in the U.S. from the 1820s to the 1900s, with the last large outbreak in 1910-1911. Since the 1800s, there have been seven cholera pandemics (worldwide outbreaks).

Cholera riots occurred in Russia and England (1831) and in Germany (1893) when the people rebelled against strict government isolation (quarantines) and burial rules. In 2008, cholera riots broke out in Zimbabwe as police tried to disperse people who tried to withdraw funds from banks and were protesting because of the collapse of the health system that began with a cholera outbreak. Similar but less violent public protests have occurred when yellow fever, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis quarantines have been enforced by health authorities.

Multiple outbreaks worldwide continue into the 21st century with outbreaks in India, Iran, Vietnam, and several African countries occurring over the last 10 years (some recent outbreaks occurred in Haiti and Nigeria in 2010-2011). Why is cholera history repeating itself? The answer can be traced back to Dr. Snow's studies that show a source (water or occasionally food) contaminated with V. cholerae can easily and rapidly transmit the cholera-causing bacteria to many people. Until safe water and food is available to all humans, it is likely that cholera outbreaks will continue to happen.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/18/2015

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