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Brain Eating Parasite, 8 Things You Should Know

Brain eating parasite

A new case of a brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, has been reported in a 12-year-old boy named Zachary Reyna in Florida. This report follows on the heels of another case that affected Kali Hardig, a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas, who reportedly is recovering from the infection.

Naegleria fowleri is usually found in individuals who swim in warm freshwater. In Zachary’s case, he reportedly was playing in a LaBelle residential canal.
This terribly unfortunate situation may cause many people to wonder about their chances of experiencing the same infection, so here are 8 things you should know about this brain eating parasite.

8 thing you should know

  • It is extremely rare. From 2001 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only 32 cases.
  • It is extremely deadly. According to Dr. Dirk Haselow with the Arkansas Department of Health, “Ninety-nine percent of people who get it die,” as noted in a CNN report. A study reported in Epidemiology and Infection notes that between 1962 and 2012, only one person in the United States out of 128 survived the infection.
  • The parasite enters the body through the nose. Unlike many other infections associated with water, which usually occur after swallowing water, N. fowleri causes its damage after it enters the body through the nose. After entering the nasal passages, it travels to the brain and causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which has signs and symptoms similar to those of bacterial meningitis. This similarity can reduce the chances of initially recognizing and diagnosing PAM. The infection causes the brain to swell and destroys brain tissue, leading to death.
  • The organism is found in fresh water. Naegleria fowleri survives best in warm fresh water, such as lakes, rivers, hot springs, and water discharged from industrial plants, although it also can be found in soil. It is believed Ms. Hardig was infected at a water park in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2010, another case involving the same brain eating parasite was linked to the same water park.
  • The parasite is rarely found in other water sources. The CDC reports that it is very rare for Naegleria infections to occur from improperly chlorinated swimming pool water or from contaminated tapwater. N. fowleri is not found in the ocean or other salt water sources.
  • The parasite can be found around the world. In the United States, most infections have been identified in southern states.
  • Symptoms appear 1 to 7 days after intake of the parasite. The initial symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, stiff neck, and vomiting. The disease progresses rapidly, and patients quickly begin to experience confusion, loss of balance, hallucinations, seizures and coma. Once symptoms appear, death typically occurs within one to 12 days.
  • You can reduce your risk of infection. The CDC provides some tips on how to reduce your risk of infection from N. fowleri if you swim in warm fresh water areas. They include:
  • Use nose clips or hold your nose
  • Avoid swimming in warm fresh water when the temperature is high and water levels are low, as this is a situation in which the parasite thrives
  • Do not disturb the sediment if you are walking in shallow, warm fresh water
  • Avoid putting your head under water when in untreated thermal water, such as hot springs
  • If you use a neti pot to irrigate your sinuses, always use water that has been (1) boiled for 1 minute or 3 minutes if you are at elevations greater than 6,500 feet; or (2) filtered water; or (3) water that is labeled as being sterile or distilled. Clean the neti pot after use with the appropriate water and allow the pot to air dry.

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Revised August 13, 2013

CBS News
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Yoder JS et al. The epidemiology of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis in the USA, 1962-2008. Epidemiology and Infections 2010; 138:968-75

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