Doctors concerned brain-eating amoeba infection could increase due to warmer water temperatures

Muere residente de Georgia por infección provocada por la “ameba come cerebros”
Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba commonly found in warm freshwater and soil. It usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose.(Source: CDC)
Published: Jul. 31, 2023 at 3:55 PM EDT
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PHOENIX (KPHO/Gray News) -- Some scientists predict brain-eating amoeba cases could grow since we’ve had record heat and water temperatures are increasing.

The amoeba, naegleria fowleri, can enter the body through the nose and travel to the brain, resulting in an infection. While cases are limited over the years, there have been multiple in Arizona at Lake Pleasant and Lake Mead.

Most recently in Nevada, a child died because of the disease.

Brain-eating amoeba is a microscopic parasite found in warm, fresh bodies of water like hot springs or lakes. You can’t get it by accidentally swallowing the water or through a cut. The only way to get infected is by getting it far up your nose by diving or cannonballing into a lake.

Although infection is rare, the disease has a 97% fatality rate since symptoms are common at first. The disease is usually only diagnosed when it’s in the late-stage and symptoms progress to more severe illness like hallucinations and seizures. By that point, it’s usually too late to treat the disease effectively.

There are only about 10 cases per year, but experts say because the amoebas live in warm, fresh bodies of water, they expect to see that number increase with rising temperatures.

Dr. Wassim Ballan, an infectious disease specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said there are concerns about cases rising, as well as a number of other infectious diseases.

“We are probably going to see a change in trends because of the climate changing and the temperatures rising,” Ballan said. “So there is a lot of concern in the infectious disease community about a lot of different infections, including amoebic infections becoming more common as the climate is warming.”

He also said parents who notice their child feeling unwell after a day of swimming should get them checked out right away. Early symptoms usually start five days after infection. They include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Because the amoebas can only be deadly by entering through the nose, doctors recommend you not jump or dive into the water and instead hold your nose or wear nose clips. Or better yet, keep your head above water.

Digging in shallow water is also not advised since it stirs up the sediment where the amoeba live. It’s important to note there haven’t been any recent cases at Saguaro Lake. Since they started tracking the disease in 1962, there have been only 160 reported cases, so it’s infrequent. Still, Ballan said it isn’t worth the risk when prevention is so easy.

For more information on the naegleria fowleri, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.