Brain-eating amoeba

Person killed by brain-eating amoeba after swimming in US freshwater lake.

In light of a recent second fatality in the US this month due to a brain-eating amoeba, freshwater swimmers have been cautioned to reconsider before plunging into warmer waters.

This life-threatening organism, a single-celled amoeba officially identified as Naegleria fowleri, leads to severe brain damage when it enters the human body through the nasal cavity. Health officials confirmed on Friday that an unidentified individual in Georgia, U.S., passed away after swimming in freshwater.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, Naegleria fowleri causes brain tissue destruction, leading to brain swelling and typically resulting in death.

What is this brain-eating amoeba?

Naegleria fowleri, often referred to as the brain-eating amoeba, is a single-celled organism found in warm freshwater environments like hot springs, warm lakes, soil, and poorly treated swimming pools. This microorganism usually poses no threat to humans, but it can cause a severe and often fatal brain infection known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) when it enters the body through the nose.

The amoeba travels up the nasal passage and into the brain, where it destroys brain tissue. This infection is extremely rare but tends to be devastating when it occurs, with a high fatality rate. Symptoms of PAM include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, and can progress to seizures, hallucinations, and coma.

Infection generally happens when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, particularly during periods of high water temperature and low water levels. Notably, Naegleria fowleri cannot infect a person by drinking contaminated water.

Despite intensive research, there is no effective treatment for PAM. The CDC in the United States has made an experimental drug available that can be used to treat the infection, but it’s not guaranteed to be effective.

Brain-eating amoeba
Lifecycles of Naegleria fowleri (Image: CDC)

Prevention strategies focus on limiting the amount of water going up the nose while swimming in warm freshwater sources. Although infection is extremely rare, the severe nature of the disease makes public education about Naegleria fowleri crucial.

Brain-eating amoeba in Bath, England

There have been cases of infection in Europe, more specifically in the UK. In October 1978, a tragic incident occurred in Bath when a young girl from a local swimming club, who was swimming in the revitalized Roman Bath, fell victim to naegleriasis and passed away. This led to the prolonged closure of the bath. Investigations revealed the presence of Naegleria fowleri, a lethal microorganism, in the water.

Climate change and Naegleri fowleri

Climate change could potentially increase the risk of Naegleria fowleri infections, but more research is needed to definitively confirm this. This amoeba thrives in warm, freshwater environments. As global temperatures rise due to climate change, more bodies of water may reach the high temperatures that this amoeba prefers, potentially expanding its habitat. Furthermore, changes in rainfall patterns could also influence the distribution and occurrence of the amoeba.

However, it’s essential to note that while the amoeba may become more widespread, the risk of infection remains low. Infections are extremely rare, even in areas where the amoeba is common. Moreover, infection requires specific circumstances, such as water containing the amoeba being forcefully pushed up the nose.


Top image by Will Swann via Unsplash

Similar Posts