Lake of “Killer Amoeba” cause scare
October 28, 2007
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Don’t underestimate the microscopic lake amoebae – they’re stronger than they look. This year, the amoebae, whose scientific name is the Naegleria fowleri, has killed six boys. From 1995 to 2004, 23 people were killed in the United States from the amoeba making the yearly average 2.3 cases per year. With this year already at six infections, health officials are worried.
Infections from the amoebae are extremely rare, though the parasite can be found almost anywhere, including lakes, rivers, hot springs and even in swimming pools. Infection occurs once the amoeba enters the body through the nose and proceeds to attack the brain.
“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Associated Press.
If one stirs up sediments in shallow water, the amoebae are stirred up as well and reach the swimmer’s nose, where it latches onto the olfactory nerve, which connects to the brain. The amoeba then makes it way to the brain and spinal cord, destroying tissue along the way.
To prevent infection, the CDC recommends avoiding swimming in warm bodies of water, or water that has been polluted. Other suggestions are to hold one’s nose or use nose clips when swimming in warm bodies of water. Digging or stirring up sediment in these bodies or water should be avoided, as well as swimming in areas that are marked as “no swimming” or in areas that caution the presence of Naegleria infection.
Side effects of Naegleria infection consist of fever, nausea, vomiting, headache and stiff neck. These signs typically appear within two weeks of infection. After extensive damage to the brain, symptoms consist of confusion, lack of attentiveness, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. Following these symptoms, the infection progresses swiftly, and death occurs within a week. The CDC recommends seeking medical attention immediately if two or more of any of the symptoms mentioned are experienced severely, though risk of infection is extremely minimal. Some of these symptoms are shared with other illnesses, such as meningitis, and one should not immediately assume that Naegleria infection is the cause.
Several drugs have been tested in laboratories against Naegleria, and have been proven to be effective. However, their efficiency is questionable because the majority of Naegleria infections have been fatal. Infection cannot be spread by being in contact with someone who has been infected with Naegleria.
Naegleria fowleri packs a powerful punch for its microscopic size, and should not be taken lightly. Infection is very rare, but all precautions should be taken to avoid being a host to the parasite.