Six people have died this season after encounters with Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic amoeba. Here’s the real horror movie part of the story, the deadly amoebas get sucked up the nose of the victim, work their way into the brain and feed on brain tissue until the host dies.
This year’s six reported deaths is a huge spike in cases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have monitored. From 1995 to 2004, there were 23 people killed by the condition in the U.S. This year’s cases include three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. Naegleria fowleri was discovered in Australia in the 1960, and worldwide, there have only been a few hundred cases reported.
In Arizona, a 14-year-old boy had been swimming in Lake Havasu prior to developing headaches. They persisted for days, and no remedies were found even after going to the hospital, where the boy died nine days after swimming.
The deadly amoebas like warm water and live in lakes, warm springs and even swimming pools. A common pattern to exposure has people wading through the warm waters, stirring up the bottoms where the amoebas live and then getting some of that amoeba-infested water up their nose. Swimming or diving into that water could also provide exposure to the amoebas.
To make matters worse, there isn’t any clinical treatment for the condition. While several drugs have killed Naegleria in the lab, they’ve been ineffective when used to treat humans. Most cases involving humans have resulted in death.
Local government agencies in the areas where people have died are organizing education campaign in their communities about the condition. A fact sheet on Naegleria folweri is also available on the CDC website.
In humans, once Naegleria fowleri is exposed to the human brain through the nasal passages, it is almost always fatal. Naegleria fowleri can cause Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis, which affects the central nervous system. Symptoms exhibited by people exposed to the amoeba start out being flu like, but also can include changes to their sense of taste and smell, which are followed rapidly (within 14 days) by confusion, lack of attention, loss of balance, seizures, coma and finally death. People exposed to Naegleria fowleri are not contagious, but there is currently no successful treatment for it – almost all cases result in death.
Naegleria fowleri infections are very rare, with only 23 documented cases between 1995 and 2005. What exactly is the cause for this sudden cluster of infections is unknown. Theories suggest that a warmer than usual summer combined with lower than average rainfall resulted in increased Naegleria fowleri populations. As a result of these three cases, warnings about the amoeba have been posted at 15 area parks and lakes encouraging bathers to stay out of water warmer than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and wearing nose clips when swimming.
The CDC has on line resources for healthy swimming posted on its website.