Scientific American.com BOSTON – The world has seen seven global cholera outbreaks since 1817, and the current one seems to have come to stay. Rising temperatures and a stubbornly persistent, toxic bacteria strain appear to have given the disease the upper hand.
Rita Colwell, the former head of the National Science Federation, has been tracking outbreaks of cholera for decades. Now 77, she was awarded the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize for her work on cholera and is recognized as the sleuth who found where cholera hides between outbreaks.
Cholera fatalities are “totally needless,” said Colwell, a professor at the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Quick treatment with simple salt and sugar fluids reduces the disease’s mortality rate to less than one percent.
Rita deserves the ultimate credit for looking for the reservoirs of cholera since the 1960s, and finding it,” said Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard University.
Having discovered the hideout of the bacteria, Colwell and others have been trying to predict when it will break out. Colwell found that measurable changes in the sea often will proceed an epidemic by about six weeks. That has led her to advocate use of modern technology.
“We’ve been very fortunate in that the sensors on satellites allow us to measure chlorophyll, sea surface temperature and sea surface height. These factors, it turns out, are very useful in predicting cholera epidemics,” she said in a recent interview.
The boost in cholera from even slightly higher temperatures is an ominous association as climate change warms the planet and creates heavier, more frequent downpours, said Epstein, whose recent book, “Changing Planet, Changing Health,” addresses the health threats from climate change.