by Kimberly Allen, RN
Infection from a brain eating amoeba is a rare occurrence and until recently when a 12 year old girl named Kali from Arkansas contracted the rare infection at a local water park many people had never even heard of a brain eating amoeba. The brain eating amoeba is not new, it was first discovered in 1965 and since that time almost every summer between 1 and 8 people in the US die from this amoeba.
Amoebas are single-celled organisms and there are thousands of them living in water all over the world. Some live in salt water while others only live in fresh water. The scientific name for the brain eating amoeba is Naegleria fowleri. Of the numerous Naegleria species only the this particular specie causes disease in humans. This particular amoeba only lives in fresh water and is most often found in the warm waters of the south and south west in the US, but can also be found in warm waters anywhere in the world from lakes and streams to mud puddles and hot springs. The Naegleria fowleri can also be found in untreated pools and spas as well as municipal or well water. It has also been found in soil including dust that can accumulate in the home.
You can only become infected with the Naegleria fowleri amoeba if you accidentally inhale it through your nose. You can not become infected by drinking or accidentally swallowing it. It usually gets into your nose when playing certain water sports, water skiing, or when diving. However, you can also become infected by using untreated tap water in your neti pot to clean your nostrils.
The disease that the N. fowleri amoeba causes is called primary amoebic meningioencephalitis or PAM. This is not an infection that is contagious, it does not spread from human to human. There is also evidence that shows “exposure to the amoeba is much more common than the incidence of PAM suggests.” This according to a study done by the CDC in 2009 that found there were numerous people with the N. fowleri anti bodies suggesting previous exposure as well as the number of N. fowleri found in US waters.
While the N. fowleri amoeba has always been found in the warm waters of the south, that seems to be changing. Recently this brain eating amoeba has been appearing in some very unexpected locations, like Minnesota. This has lead some experts including an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who has been tracking the amoebas for several years to conclude that the climate is changing and if the warm weather continues they believe we’ll see the N. fowleri amoeba moving further north. In 2010 and 2012 there were the first reported incidence and fatalities causes by the N. fowleri amoeba in Minnesota. These were not only the first reported cases in Minnesota history but they were “550 miles further north than any previously reported PAM fatality in the US”. According to an expert with the CDC’s division of parasitic diseases it is a concern and they are still trying to understand it. Unfortunately this infection is almost always fatal, there have been only 2 known cases of patients surviving the infection. There are a couple of reasons, one is the diagnostic challenge. There is currently no rapid test available. There is also no clear treatment available. However, there are several trials that have been successful in the laboratory according to the CDC. And though Kali remains in critical condition it’s looking more and more like she’s going to survive. The doctor’s followed a protocol in which they induced a coma and significantly reduced her body temperature to cool the brain in conjunction with a new drug that is currently in the trial phases. She is now alert and breathing on her own after 2 weeks on a ventilator and is able to gesture in response to questions which indicates she is processing information. Kali’s doctor’s are increasingly confident she will be the 3rd known survivor in US history. this new treatment protocol could also mean hope for future cases of Naegleri fowleri amoeba.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.