Cholera and Other Vibrios


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a) photo of a person getting water from a dirty waterway. B) photo of a person sleeping in a cot. C) micrograph of a rod shaped cell with a length of 1 micrometer.
(a) Outbreaks of cholera often occur in areas with poor sanitation or after natural disasters that compromise sanitation infrastructure. (b) At a cholera treatment center in Haiti, patients are receiving intravenous fluids to combat the dehydrating effects of this disease. They often lie on a cot with a hole in it and a bucket underneath to allow for monitoring of fluid loss. (c) This scanning electron micrograph shows Vibrio cholera. (credit a, b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit c: modification of work by Janice Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The gastrointestinal disease cholera is a serious infection often associated with poor sanitation, especially following natural disasters, because it is spread through contaminated water and food that has not been heated to temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria. It is caused by Vibrio cholerae serotype O1, a gram-negative, flagellated bacterium in the shape of a curved rod (vibrio). According to the CDC, cholera causes an estimated 3 to 5 million cases and 100,000 deaths each year.

Because V. cholerae is killed by stomach acid, relatively large doses are needed for a few microbial cells to survive to reach the intestines and cause infection. The motile cells travel through the mucous layer of the intestines, where they attach to epithelial cells and release cholera enterotoxin. The toxin is an A-B toxin with activity through adenylate cyclase. Within the intestinal cell, cyclic AMP (cAMP) levels increase, which activates a chloride channel and results in the release of ions into the intestinal lumen. This increase in osmotic pressure in the lumen leads to water also entering the lumen. As the water and electrolytes leave the body, it causes rapid dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Diarrhea is so profuse that it is often called “rice water stool,” and patients are placed on cots with a hole in them to monitor the fluid loss.

Cholera is diagnosed by taking a stool sample and culturing for Vibrio. The bacteria are oxidase positive and show non-lactose fermentation on MacConkey agar. Gram-negative lactose fermenters will produce red colonies while non-fermenters will produce white/colorless colonies. Gram-positive bacteria will not grow on MacConkey. Lactose fermentation is commonly used for pathogen identification because the normal microbiota generally ferments lactose while pathogens do not. V. cholerae may also be cultured on thiosulfate citrate bile salts sucrose (TCBS) agar, a selective and differential media for Vibrio spp., which produce a distinct yellow colony.

Cholera may be self-limiting and treatment involves rehydration and electrolyte replenishment. Although antibiotics are not typically needed, they can be used for severe or disseminated disease. Tetracyclines are recommended, but doxycycline,  erythromycin, orfloxacin, ciprofloxacin, and TMP/SMZ may be used. Recent evidence suggests that azithromycin is also a good first-line antibiotic. Good sanitation—including appropriate sewage treatment, clean supplies for cooking, and purified drinking water—is important to prevent infection.

V. cholera is not the only Vibrio species that can cause disease. V. parahemolyticus is associated with consumption of contaminated seafood and causes gastrointestinal illness with signs and symptoms such as watery diarrhea, nausea, fever, chills, and abdominal cramps. The bacteria produce a heat-stable hemolysin, leading to dysentery and possible disseminated disease. It also sometimes causes wound infections. V. parahemolyticus is diagnosed using cultures from blood, stool, or a wound. As with V. cholera, selective medium (especially TCBS agar) works well. Tetracycline and ciprofloxacin can be used to treat severe cases, but antibiotics generally are not needed.

Vibrio vulnificus is found in warm seawater and, unlike V. cholerae, is not associated with poor sanitary conditions. The bacteria can be found in raw seafood, and ingestion causes gastrointestinal illness. It can also be acquired by individuals with open skin wounds who are exposed to water with high concentrations of the pathogen. In some cases, the infection spreads to the bloodstream and causes septicemia. Skin infection can lead to edema, ecchymosis (discoloration of skin due to bleeding), and abscesses. Patients with underlying disease have a high fatality rate of about 50%. It is of particular concern for individuals with chronic liver disease or who are otherwise immunodeficient because a healthy immune system can often prevent infection from developing. V. vulnificus is diagnosed by culturing for the pathogen from stool samples, blood samples, or skin abscesses. Adult patients are treated with doxycycline combined with a third generation cephalosporin or with fluoroquinolones, and children are treated with TMP/SMZ.

Two other vibrios, Aeromonas hydrophila and Plesiomonas shigelloides, are also associated with marine environments and raw seafood; they can also cause gastroenteritis. Like V. vulnificusA. hydrophila is more often associated with infections in wounds, generally those acquired in water. In some cases, it can also cause septicemia. Other species of Aeromonas can cause illness. P. shigelloides is sometimes associated with more serious systemic infections if ingested in contaminated food or water. Culture can be used to diagnose A. hydrophila and P. shigelloides infections, for which antibiotic therapy is generally not needed. When necessary, tetracycline and ciprofloxacin, among other antibiotics, may be used for treatment of A. hydrophila, and  fluoroquinolones and trimethoprim are the effective treatments for P. shigelloides.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: