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Scientists Trace Origin of Recent Cholera Epidemic in Haiti

The strain of cholera currently sweeping through post-earthquake Haiti originated in South Asia, conclude scientists who did a rapid genetic analysis of bacteria collected from Haitian patients. The finding supports the notion that the cholera bacteria fueling the outbreak arrived on the island via recent visitors.

“The mostly likely explanation for the sudden appearance of cholera in Haiti is transmission of V. cholerae by an infected human, food, or other contaminated item from a region outside of Latin America to Haiti,” conclude Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator Matthew Waldor and co-authors in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which fast-tracked and published the genetic analysis online December 9, 2010.

While cholera is endemic in many parts of the world, including regions of Latin America, until October, Haiti had historically been spared from the intestinal disease. But in mid-October, an outbreak flared in northern Haiti and quickly swept across the country. By December 3, the bacteria had sickened more than 93,000 people, killing some 2,100. The World Health Organization anticipates that the outbreak will last a year or longer.

“The scientific question for us was, ‘How did cholera come to Haiti?’ It hadn’t been there for more than a hundred years,” says Waldor, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist whose laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital studies cholera and other pathogenic gut bacteria.

Waldor obtained two samples of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, from two Harvard Medical School colleagues, Stephen Calderwood and Jason Harris, who traveled to Haiti in November to assess the outbreak. Waldor then established a collaboration with Pacific Biosciences, which manufactures powerful DNA sequencing machines that can rapidly scan and identify millions of bases of genetic material. A team of scientists there, led by Eric Schadt, sequenced the complete genomes of the cholera bacteria in the samples. Waldor received the V. cholerae samples on November 8 and had the bacterial DNA sequence from Pacific Biosciences in hand by November 12.
 
 

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