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.