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History of Vaccines Blog

January 9, 2014  Karie Youngdahl

The building is abuzz today after the online publication in the New England Journal of Medicine of a paper analyzing a Mütter Museum specimen. Encased in a glass jar, floating in an alcohol solution, is an 8-inch-long segment of small intestine taken from a victim of the 1849 Philadelphia cholera epidemic. Scientists, including the Museum curator Anna Dhody, were able to extract and analyze cholera DNA from the intestine. The study aim was to describe the type of cholera that was responsible for the 1849 epidemic, which was part of the second cholera pandemic.  It has been assumed that the classical biotype caused the 19th century pandemics, and that a newer strain, known as the El Tor strain, did not emerge until the 20th century. This hasn’t however, been thoroughly studied.

Posted in: Cholera

March 11, 2013  Karie Youngdahl

Instead of a teething ring, I had a passport. Between a military father and diplomatic step-father, my family moved every year or two or three to exotic places, from Taiwan to the Philippines to Ecuador. Tucked into my passport was another essential travel document, the International Certificates of Vaccination issued by the federal government, a yellow-paper catalog of inoculations with separate pages for smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera. When traveling during the 1950s and 1960s, before computerized databases, immigration officials examined my passport in one hand, the dog-eared vaccination record in the other. Reviewing the vaccination record now, I still derive the same satisfaction that I experienced as a school kid in reading my vaccination history—which we kids called our “shot records”--as a chronology of health accomplishment, a medical report card. A visit to the doctor before taking a trip became so routine that I ceased to fear needle punctures. Rather, I looked forward to having the administering physician sign and return my vaccination record.

Posted in: Cholera, Historical Medical Library, Yellow Fever

May 12, 2012  Project Director

Cholera is one of those diseases that you really don’t want to get. It begins like any other intestinal illness, with abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Suddenly, a very profuse, watery diarrhea develops. So much water leaves the body through the diarrhea that the person’s mouth becomes dry. He stops urinating because he has no fluid left. Eyes become sunken, and the sufferer loses his energy. During the course of the disease, a person with cholera may pass as many as 13 US gallons (or 50 liters) of fluid. Left untreated, cholera can kill a person in a matter of hours to days from severe dehydration.

Posted in: Public Health, Ethics, Cholera

March 16, 2011

In October 2010, cholera broke out in Haiti for the first time in decades, devastating the country while it was still recovering from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and left millions homeless just nine months earlier. In typical conditions, cholera can be treated easily with an oral rehydration solution or, in severe cases, via intravenous fluids to replace what is lost to vomiting and diarrhea. With quick treatment, nearly all patients recover. Left untreated, however, the dehydration and shock caused by the disease can kill within a matter of hours.

In Haiti, the country’s already-poor infrastructure had been additionally damaged by the earthquake, leaving conditions ripe for water- and food-borne diseases; within a month’s time, the cholera outbreak had spread across the country and killed almost 1,000 people. By the end of the year the death toll in Haiti had passed 3,000, and the Haitian government predicted that there would be more than 400,000 cases by the end of October 2011. Now, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of California San Francisco have found that the number may reach almost twice that, predicting 779,000 cases of cholera and 11,100 deaths by the end of November.

Posted in: Cholera, Public Health

October 26, 2010

Cholera affects 3-5 million people each year, killing more than 100,000. The diarrheal disease, spread by contaminated food and water, is often a major problem in disaster areas where a clean water supply and sanitation facilities are limited or unavailable.

Haiti, still recovering from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, is experiencing a growing cholera outbreak that has so far killed 259 people. Haiti’s Le Ministère de la Santé Publique et de la Population (Ministry for Public Health and the Population, or MSPP) reported 3,342 confirmed cases as of October 26, but Dr. Jon Andrus, Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated in a press briefing on October 25 that the true number of cases is likely to be significantly higher than the confirmed number. Dr. Andrus noted that about 75% of people infected with cholera do not experience symptoms (called “asymptomatic infection”). These individuals can still spread the bacteria, however. Dr. Andrus also stated that while the increase in new cases has recently slowed, there is still a concern that the Haitian outbreak could spread to the Dominican Republic.

Posted in: Cholera