In many infectious diseases, an unknown fraction of infections produce symptoms mild enough to go unrecorded, a fact that can seriously compromise the interpretation of epidemiological records. This is true for cholera, a pandemic bacterial disease, where estimates of the ratio of asymptomatic to symptomatic infections have ranged from 3 to 100 (refs 1-5). In the absence of direct evidence, understanding of fundamental aspects of cholera transmission, immunology and control has been based on assumptions about this ratio and about the immunological consequences of inapparent infections. Here we show that a model incorporating high asymptomatic ratio and rapidly waning immunity, with infection both from human and environmental sources, explains 50yr of mortality data from 26 districts of Bengal, the pathogen's endemic home. We find that the asymptomatic ratio in cholera is far higher than had been previously supposed and that the immunity derived from mild infections wanes much more rapidly than earlier analyses have indicated. We find, too, that the environmental reservoir (free-living pathogen) is directly responsible for relatively few infections but that it may be critical to the disease's endemicity. Our results demonstrate that inapparent infections can hold the key to interpreting the patterns of disease outbreaks. New statistical methods, which allow rigorous maximum likelihood inference based on dynamical models incorporating multiple sources and outcomes of infection, seasonality, process noise, hidden variables and measurement error, make it possible to test more precise hypotheses and obtain unexpected results. Our experience suggests that the confrontation of time-series data with mechanistic models is likely to revise our understanding of the ecology of many infectious diseases.