The Brain Eating Amoeba, Know Thine Enemy

The Brain-Eater Naegleria fowleri (nay-gleer-ee-uh) is a type of free-living amoeba,that infects the central nervous system and “eats” the brain tissue. There have been 142 cases of recorded infection with 4 survivors , 2 of which received no permanent brain damage. The U.S. possesses 3 of 8 Naegleria f. strains, however as far as scientists can tell, there isn’t any difference in virulence between strains…meaning they are all equally deadly. 

Naegleria f. is present worldwide in soil and both natural man-made freshwater habitats, thriving in warmer temperatures as high as 115 degrees fahrenheit! Some of these amoeba reservoirs include fountains, swimming pools, spas, cooling circuits, and tap water sources. Well before you start freaking out, let’s take a look at some data to provide a more clear perspective!

From 1962 to 2017 there have been approximately 142 incidences of infection with the brain-eater, Naegleria fowleri.According to the Center for Disease Control, there have been 60 cases from 1962-1989 and 82 cases from 1990 to 2017. What has changed in the past 26 years to make the incidence of a brain-eating amoeba more frequent? There are two schools of thought:

  1. The increases in disease incidence could be scaling with a population increase. Since 1990 the population of the U.S. has grown by an estimated 75.53 million individuals, for a population of 325.15 million in 2017  based on the U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 
  1. The Brain-Eater Naegleria f., is able to thrive in high temperature water. The temperature of the U.S. continental surface has been steadily increasing since 1990. These increasing temperatures could be allowing Naelgleria to thrive and reproduce faster. The primary states of incidence, Florida and Texas (both of which have 30+ incidences) are naturally hot climates with numerous bodies of freshwater. This has made both of these sites primary incubators for infection and Naegleria f. persistence.

A  question that arises when learning of a brain-eating amoeba-does this happen where I live? The CDC has developed the chart below to answer this crucial question. Number of Case-reports of Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis by State (1962-2018)

Naegleria f. Infection typically leads to inflammation, swelling, and hemorrhaging of the brain. Symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, short attention spans, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations; all of which can manifest themselves anywhere from 1 to 9 days post infection. 

Okay, okay so onto the big questions of what the treatment options are after infection, along with the prospects of surviving this amoeba encounter. Immediate admission to your local hospital as soon as you suspect Naegleria f. infection is your best bet, with a combination therapy of lowering body temperature and administration of antimicrobials. Unfortunately, the mortality rate of this disease is roughly 97%, with late diagnosis serving as a predominant culprit.  

Naegleria f. infection is not transmissible between humans so there currently isn’t a fear of an outbreak of amebas eating our brains. However, a few suggestions on how to limit the possibility of infection altogether include: avoiding swimming in warm fresh water, using nose clips when diving into warm fresh water, abstaining from disturbing the sediment of shallow bodies of warm water. Remember, if you think you or someone you know has been infected, please seek medical help immediately!

Joint Article-B.Ford, J. Hamilton

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