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Cholera in Haiti Came From South Asia, Genome Analysis Suggests

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- The cholera epidemic that has killed 2,120 people and hospitalized 44,000 in Haiti probably was carried there by people who brought it from South Asia, according to an analysis of the bacteria’s genome.

Using tissue samples from patients in Haiti, scientists at Menlo Park-based Pacific Biosciences of California Inc. took only two days to map the pathogen’s genome, the set of genes that makes any organism unique. The Haitian strain is almost identical to types found in South Asia and differs greatly from those circulating in nearby Latin America, according to the analysis published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

This suggests humans carried the Asian strain into the country, which hadn’t had a cholera outbreak in more than 100 years even with its desperate poverty and lack of sanitation, said Matthew Waldor, an author of the study. Better screening is needed of people traveling from areas with endemic cholera to regions where conditions could lead to an outbreak, he said.

“This strongly argues that cholera was introduced to Haiti not on an ocean current from Latin America but by human activities,” said Waldor, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “It also suggests we can prevent future Haitis by altering some policies.”

Cholera, which triggers severe diarrhea and dehydration and can cause rapid death, is caused by various strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae and is usually transmitted in contaminated water.