Skip to main content

See also:

Killer amoeba is not found only in outdoor bodies of water

This diagram shows the life cycle and methods of infestation of Naegleria fowleri
This diagram shows the life cycle and methods of infestation of Naegleria fowleri
http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/pathogen.html/Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Another tragic case of the “brain-eating amoeba”, as Naegleria fowleri is frequently called, has occurred when a young girl unknowingly ingested this microscopic contaminant recently (see http://news.msn.com/us/girl-9-killed-by-brain-eating-parasite-in-water). The victim, nine-year-old Hally Yust (see abcnews.go.com/Health/girl-killed-brain-eating-amoeba-loved-water/story?id=24583455), a water-skier who was accustomed to swimming as well as partaking in her apparently fa,vorite sport in the freshwaters of Kansas, passed away from the resultant disease, primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM. The parasite responsible for the death of this child as well as over a hundred Americans since the early 1960s has claimed all but three of its known victims in this country alone.

PAM, despite being more publicized in cases over the past several years, may still be mistaken for bacterial meningitis. The symptoms have some similarities—severe headache, fever, nausea, and stiff neck—and both conditions may kill their host within a few days. Meningitis, though, has the added aspect of severe pain when the patient is exposed to light (many refer to this as photophobia, although it is not actually a matter of fearing light) as well as, in many instances, paralysis of the legs. PAM is contracted when contaminated freshwater—usually that which is still, allowing the amoebae to develop—is allowed to enter the victim’s nasal passages. These single-celled beings travel up the nose to the brain, where they rapidly develop in the brain’s tissue. In almost all cases PAM is fatal.

What about water that collects other than in ponds, ditches or other stagnant outdoor sources? Few people may consider that the amoeba responsible for such horrendous deaths can lurk inside their own homes. However, this same killer cell, which is invisible to the naked eye, has been found in plumbing in Louisiana. Back in 2011 the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC for short) found samples of the brain-eating amoeba in bathroom fixtures of one home, and a tankless water heater of another. Both homes were investigated because there had been people living in each who succumbed to PAM after using water from them. No traces of the parasites were found in the municipal water supply, causing the investigators to focus on the homes. For more details about these cases, see: http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/08/22/cid.cis626.abstract; also Eryn Brown’s article (Los Angeles Times), http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/23/news/la-heb-brain-eating-amoeba-neti-pot-20120823

In each instance, the victims of this infestation had used neti pots to irrigate their nasal passages. At first many people thought, hearing this in the media, the neti pots themselves were the culprits. Others considered the salt used in the method of clearing mucus from the nose to be responsible for the deaths. While this is not true, neither was any saline solution found to be capable of killing the amoebae, either. The parasites had survived the salt water and traveled along the victims’ olfactory nerves to their brains.

So what does this indicate about the possibility of Naegleria fowleri to exist in the oceans? At this point no evidence has been found of its existence in salt water bodies. The oceans contain a great deal more salt than would be normally found in a neti pot, which may be the reason. More research, obviously, needs to be done concerning this issue in order to save lives. Despite the insistence by the CDC that the disease is “rare”, the numbers of its victims has been increasing. Is there a chance that illnesses and deaths being attributed to other diseases, not only bacterial or other forms of meningitis, but a variety of conditions, are actually incorrectly-diagnosed PAM? With the illnesses aboard cruise ships, for instance, and situations where large numbers of people become ill in pools, jacuzzis, etc., perhaps plumbing should be checked for such infestations. Flushing out water heaters is a good measure but one not always taken in many homes and apartment buildings or other facilities. Instead, the CDC has only warned the public to wear nose plugs while swimming, and to sterilize neti pots and use distilled water in them. These are good measures, certainly, but more pro-active maintenance should be instituted.

For more information on PAM, see: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/illness.html