How Does Cholera Kill?

Haiti's president Rene Preval confirmed today (Oct. 22) that at least 142 people have died as a result of a cholera outbreak north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. The nasty bacterium responsible is a one-celled microscopic organism that kills by causing an infection in the small intestine.

What makes the disease so deadly is the severe dehydration it causes once symptoms begin to set in.

"Cholera causes severe diarrhea and dehydration that can lead to death extremely rapidly," said Jason Harris of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Infectious Disease and lead author of a 2009 study regarding the immune response of people with cholera who were infected with parasitic intestinal worms.

Symptoms of cholera also include fever and vomiting. If left untreated, cholera can be fatal in a matter of hours, according to the Mayo Clinic. The current outbreak in Haiti has infected more than 1,500 people, Haitian medical officials told news sources.

The bacterial disease is spread by water and food that has been contaminated by the Vibrio cholera bacterium. Modern sewage and water treatments have made cholera outbreaks a thing of the past in industrialized countries, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Cholera was a huge problem in America during the 19th century, before we were able to get it under control," Harris told Life's Little Mysteries.

The last major cholera outbreak in the United States occurred in 1911, when cholera-infected vessels arrived in New York City ports and spread the deadly disease. The outbreak killed 11 people, as health authorities managed to quarantine those infected at a hospital on Swinburne Island, a small, man-made island in the Lower New York Bay, according to U.S. Public Health Service records.

However, cholera continues to pose a major threat in developing countries that lack efficient sewage treatments and clean water. The risk of a mass cholera outbreak is highest when poverty, war or natural disasters force people to live in crowded conditions without adequate sanitation, according to the Mayo Clinic. Haiti is still reeling from a massive earthquake that shook the country in January.

The highly effective and successful treatment for cholera is rehydration therapy using a simple water solution called oral rehydration solution (ORS). ORS contains salt and sugars that help the body to absorb water and restore the fluids that the person lost as a result of being sick, which can be up to 6.34 gallons (24 liters) of fluid lost a day, Harris said.

The spread of cholera can also be decreased or prevented by treating those who have the bacterium with antibiotics. While cholera can be very deadly to all age groups, children are often heavily affected in areas where the disease is common, Harris said.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.