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Members of the genus Vibrio cause a number of important infectious syndromes. Classic among them is cholera, a devastating diarrheal disease caused by V. cholerae that has been responsible for seven global pandemics and much suffering over the past two centuries. Epidemic cholera remains a significant public health concern in the developing world today. Other vibrioses caused by other Vibrio species include syndromes of diarrhea, soft tissue infection, or primary sepsis. All Vibrio species are highly motile, facultatively anaerobic, curved gram-negative rods with one or more flagella. In nature, vibrios most commonly reside in tidal rivers and bays under conditions of moderate salinity. They proliferate in the summer months when water temperatures exceed 20°C. As might be expected, the illnesses they cause also increase in frequency during the warm months.

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Definition

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Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that can, in a matter of hours, result in profound, rapidly progressive dehydration and death. Accordingly, cholera gravis (the severe form of cholera) is a much-feared disease, particularly in its epidemic presentation. Fortunately, prompt aggressive fluid repletion and supportive care can obviate the high mortality that cholera has historically wrought. While the term cholera has occasionally been applied to any severely dehydrating secretory diarrheal illness, whether infectious in etiology or not, it now refers to disease caused by V. cholerae serogroup O1 or O139—i.e., the serogroups with epidemic potential.

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Microbiology and Epidemiology

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The species V. cholerae is classified into more than 200 serogroups based on the carbohydrate determinants of their lipopolysaccharide (LPS) O antigens. Although some non-O1 V. cholerae serogroups (strains that do not agglutinate in antisera to the O1 group antigen) have occasionally caused sporadic outbreaks of diarrhea, serogroup O1 was, until the emergence of serogroup O139 in 1992, the exclusive cause of epidemic cholera. Two biotypes of V. cholerae O1, classical and El Tor, are distinguished. Each biotype is further subdivided into two serotypes, termed Inaba and Ogawa.

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The natural habitat of V. cholerae is coastal salt water and brackish estuaries, where the organism lives in close relation to plankton. Humans become infected incidentally but, once infected, can act as vehicles for spread. Ingestion of water contaminated by human feces is the most common means of acquisition of V. cholerae. Consumption of contaminated food also can contribute to spread. There is no known animal reservoir. While the infectious dose is relatively high, it is markedly reduced in hypochlorhydric persons, in those using antacids, and when gastric acidity is buffered by a meal. Cholera is predominantly a pediatric disease in endemic areas, but it affects adults and children equally when newly introduced into a population. In endemic areas, the burden of disease is often greatest during “cholera seasons” associated with high temperatures, heavy rainfall, and flooding, but cholera can occur year-round. For unexplained reasons, susceptibility to cholera is significantly influenced by ABO blood group status; persons with type O blood ...

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