I, for One, Welcome our New Brain Eating Overlords…
August 2, 2013
It seems there is an increasing geographic occurrence of infections from an amoeba that attacks brain tissue – it is now being seen in areas further north than has been historically recorded, likely due to warmer water conditions.
I hope I’m not accused of being too flip with this one. Ok, I probably am. The most recent tragedy involving a 12 year old girl is not funny.
But the larger issue of climate denying politicians ignoring warning signals is what’s really important here. Not long ago, uber-denier James Inhofe contracted a severe illness from toxic algae in overheated Oklahoma lake waters, and laughed it off. Maybe the brain-eaters got to him as well.
A 12-year-old girl contracted a rare infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba in Arkansas, and it may be tied to summer heat and drought conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The amoeba, a single-celled organism, that caused the infection is called Naegleria fowleri, which lives in warm freshwater, such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. These organisms can travel up the nose to the brain and spinal cord as people swim or dive and can cause a deadly infection called Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM).
The Arkansas Department of Heath (ADH) said in a press release that the most likely source of the Arkansas infection is the Willow Springs Water Park, located south of Little Rock, Ark. Another case of PAM in 2010 is also believed to be connected to Willow Springs.
“Most of the cases occur in what we call the southern-tier states, and, in fact, about 50 percent of cases have occurred in Texas and Florida,” Dr. Jennifer Cope, medical epidemiologist at the CDC, said.
The Arkansas case is the first confirmed one of 2013, Cope said. In the last decade from 2003 to 2012, 31 infections have been reported in the U.S.
Naegleria fowleri is thermophilic, or heat-loving. Most infections occur during July, August and September when there is prolonged heat and thus higher water temperatures and lower water levels.
Are cases of infection becoming more common?
We don’t have data that says infection from Naegleria fowleri is becoming more common. In the last few years there have been four to five cases per year.
What has changed recently is that cases have appeared in places we had never seen before—like Minnesota, Indiana, and Kansas. This is evidence that the amoeba is moving farther north. In the past it was always found in warmer weather states.
Why does the amoeba enter the nose of some people but not others?
That is a very good question we don’t know the answer to. Millions of people swim in these bodies of water every year and don’t become ill. So it is difficult for us to say why one person would become ill and other people who swam in the same place and did the same activities did not. It certainly can affect anyone.
What is the chance of survival?
Since 1962, there have been 128 cases of Naegleria fowleri [infection] and only one survivor, not including the current case. Back in 1978, a patient survived after being treated with antibiotics. The same regimen has been tried unsuccessfully on other patients.
How can people stay safe?
If people want to reduce their risk of becoming infected—even though this is a rare event— the thing to think about is holding their nose shut or wearing nose clips when swimming in warm, untreated freshwater. Keep your head above water in hot springs or other thermally heated bodies of water, and during activities where water is forced up the nose, like water sports and diving.
Another way to reduce the risk of infection is to avoid stirring up the sediment in lakes and ponds, where the amoeba may live.
This is a tragic event for someone who becomes infected, as well as their family. We feel it is important for us to be involved even though it does not affect lots of people each year.