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When doctors get it wrong (Part 3): Brain-eating amoebas

Living in America, we take it for granted that dreadful parasites like bot flies or malaria inhabit our lands. However, one particularly gruesome parasite does live here. And it’s quite common in freshwater streams, lakes and even tap water.

A few weeks ago, in part 2 of this series, we looked at horrifying flesh-eating bacteria that causes deadly infections. This, perhaps, is worse.

The parasite – an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri – thrives in warm water between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, where it feeds on bacteria. In rare cases, however, it can enter the nostrils of an unknowing human (often a swimmer who gets water up their nose). From there, it travels through the sinus passages into the brain, where it quickly multiplies and starts devouring brain cells. Few survive such a devastating infection.

How it gets overlooked

Because the infection is so rare – with only a handful of cases occurring nationwide every year – it frequently gets overlooked. There are currently no rapid tests for it. And, although experimental treatments have shown some promise, there are no established cures. The fatality rate is more than 97 percent, with only four known survivors in the U.S.

Treatment within the first 36 hours is the best shot at survival. Yet that requires a prompt diagnosis. This can be difficult since the infection initially mimics the flu, with symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

The victim soon develops full-blown meningitis (swelling of the brain). Neurological problems – hallucinations, seizures, confusion – follow, culminating in loss of consciousness and coma. Within days, the victim is dead.

How to avoid it

The only surefire way to avoid contracting the amoeba is to stay away from fresh water. However, given the extreme rarity of the infection, such drastic measures aren’t necessary. Children and adults alike can reduce their (already miniscule) risk by taking some basic precautions:

  • Wear nose plugs and pinch your nose shut when you go underwater.
  • Avoid untreated swimming pools and kiddie pools.
  • Stay out of ponds, streams or other small bodies of warm, stagnant water – especially during the heat of July and August. Such conditions make it more likely that high amoeba populations are present.
  • If you do become sick with flu-like symptoms within a few weeks after swimming (or participating in other freshwater activities), let your doctor know immediately.

Awareness goes a long way toward spreading the word about this extremely rare – yet extremely life-threatening – parasitic infection.

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