The term “killer amoeba” may as well belong to some sci-fi movie. Unfortunately, a microscopic organism called Naegleria fowleri is not part of fiction. The amoeba lives in lakes and hot springs. Naegleria attacks the body through the nasal cavity, quickly eating its way to the brain. Once infected, people start complaining of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers. In the later stages of an infection, they will show typical signs of brain damage e.g. hallucinations and behavioral changes.
Though the attacks are extremely rare, U.S. health officials have already registered six fatal Naegleria-related cases this year. Some health officials are quite concerned about a possible epidemic caused by the killer amoeba. According to data released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Naegleria infected 23 people from 1995 to 2004.
This year health officials already registered six deaths related to the killer amoeba in southern states, namely, three people died in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. Consequently, state health officials put their communities on high alert. On the other hand, the CDC is aware of only several hundred cases worldwide since the discovery of Naegleria in Australia in the 1960s.
The case of the 14-year-old Aaron Evans, reported in September, came as a shock to many Americans. Along with his father and other loved ones, the boy went to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to celebrate his father’s birthday on September 8. The Southwest had been hit hard by a heat wave, and the boy spent the whole day swimming and splashing in the lake. Aaron woke up with a throbbing headache about one week later. His father took him to an emergency room. The doctors first thought the boy was suffering from meningitis. Aaron was rushed to another hospital. Despite all the efforts to save his life, the boy passed away on September 17. “My kids won’t swim in Lake Havasu again,” said the boy’s father following the tragedy.
According to Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational water-born illnesses with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a patient will usually die within two weeks after initial exposure. Once infected, people have little chance of survival. Those stirring up the bottom as they wade through shallow water are likely to get infected with Naegleria. It is still unclear why boys seem to be more frequently infected than girls. “Boys tend to have more boisterous activities when swimming, but at this point we can’t be sure if that’s the only reason,” Beach said.
Naegleria fowleri is a heat-loving microorganism. Some health officials warn that the number of cases may start increasing as global warming sets in. Although some drugs have been found effective in stopping the amoeba in lab experiments, they have rarely helped patients survive the infection, according to medical sources. Plugging one’s nose prior to swimming or diving in warm, standing water seems to be the easiest way to prevent the killer-amoeba from entering the body.