Brain-eating amoeba: The good news and the bad

Because of the recent deaths of several young people, brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) has created a rising concern. When this single-cell organism gets inside the nose of its victims, it can bring about the usually fatal disease called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). In spite of all the attention this disease is causing, there is much to learn about it. It is a wonder that it strikes so infrequently, considering how common N. fowleri is and how often people engage in water sports without getting the disease. Here is a run-down on the good and bad news of this peculiar organism and its effects.

The Good News

  • PAM is a very rare disease. For example, between 1996 and 2005 there were 36,000 drowning deaths in the US, but in the same time span from 2001 to 2010 there were only about 32 PAM related deaths. In fact, you have higher chances of being struck by lightning than die from PAM as only about 400 cases of PAM-caused death have been reported worldwide so far.
  • This type of amoeba is a problem primarily in southern states, in warm, grimy water. In actuality, these strikes are an accident because N. fowleri feeds primarily on bacteria and does not appear to target humans.
  • N. fowleri is usually not found in treated water, in salt water (as in the ocean), and in cold water conditions/climate.
  • PAM cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
  • There are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself against infection. Avoid water sports in warm waters during the hottest months of the year and if you must engage in such sports, use nose clips, use neti pots, and other such nasal devices. Lastly, avoid bodies of water that are very muddy, since they are subject to a great deal runoff and are heavily polluted.
  • Health organizations are closely monitoring any new developments.
  • Some human beings are known to have developed antibodies to the disease; this could lead to the development of a “vaccine” or some other type of treatment.
  • One 9-year-old California patient was successfully treated with anti-amoeba antibiotics and survived the disease. This makes a total of 8 people worldwide who have survived this fatal disease.
  • It is not likely to get the disease from drinking amoeba-infected water (as long as the water does not enter the nose).
  • PAM appears to target mostly young people; in other words, adults may be less susceptible (though further study may be needed to confirm this).

The Bad News

  • There is currently no official cure for PAM; presently, the best cure is prevention. Additionally, most people who have gotten PAM have died.
  • In addition to outdoor bodies of water (fresh water rivers, ponds, lakes, etc.), N. fowleri can be found in warm tap water, hot water heaters, aquariums, swimming pools, hot spas, and any other place containing untreated warm water.
  • PAM may become worse as climates get warmer, waterways become more polluted, and water sports become more and more popular.
  • The symptoms of PAM can easily be confused with other diseases (such as viral/bacterial meningitis), thus slowing down proper diagnosis and treatment.
  • N. fowleri may evolve into a human host hunter if its usual bacteria food supplies are compromised.
  • This amoeba produces symptoms relatively quickly (1 to 7 days) and leads to death also within a short time (1 to 12 days after symptoms set in).
  • N. fowleri appears to be a very common microbe in our environment.
  • Once the microbe finds its way into someone’s nose, it can lead to PAM.

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