Brain and Body

Rare Brain-Eating Amoeba Infects and Kills 18-Year-Old Ohio Teen

June 24, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Naegleria fowleri
Photo credit: CDC. Naegleria fowleri

Here’s what you need to know about the brain amoeba.

Yesterday (June 22), health officials announced the tragic news of an Ohio teen’s death, whose life was taken after she was infected by a brain-eating amoeba in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The 18-year-old was on a youth church trip and visited an outdoor recreation center with white-water rafting where she reportedly went underwater after her raft overturned. This is how it’s suspected that the rare but deadly amoeba, a single-celled organism called Naegleria fowleri, made its way into her brain.

The young woman’s cause of death was primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which is a fatal brain infection caused by the brain-eating amoeba. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the presence of the N. fowleri in her cerebral spinal fluid.

Here’s what you need to know about the brain-eating amoeba.

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It infects the brain by traveling through the nose.

In the Ohio teen’s case, it’s likely that water went up her nose when the raft overturned, and the brain-eating amoeba made its way into the brain.

The CDC informs that people cannot get infected by swallowing water contaminated with the amoeba.

Once in the brain, the amoeba destroys brain tissue.

The CDC reports that N. fowleri destroys the brain tissue, which results in brain swelling and, in most cases, death.

Early symptoms, which can occur one to nine days after infection, include headache, fever, vomiting, and nausea.

Infections from N. fowleri are extremely rare.

From 2006 to 2015, there have been just 37 cases of N. fowleri infection in the United States, which isn’t many considering the millions of people who go swimming each year. Of these infections, the CDC reports that 33 occurred in contaminated recreational water, 3 were infected after performing nasal irrigation with infected water, and 1 case was caused by contaminated tap water on a backyard slip-n-slide.

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It’s nearly impossible to survive this brain-eating amoeba infection. 

Unfortunately, the fatality rate after being infected with N. fowleri is almost 98 percent. From 1962 to 2015, only three people of 138 known infected individuals survived in the US.

The last person to survive this type of infection was a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas who contracted the infection in 2013. According to Live Science, doctors treated her with various anti-fungal medications, as well as an experimental drug called miltefosine. Miltefosine was initially developed to treat breast cancer, but was shown to kill the amoeba in lab experiments.

The amoeba usually lurks in warm freshwater lakes and rivers.

N. fowleri isn’t found in the ocean. It prefers to hide in warm freshwater, like lakes, rivers, and hot springs. It can also strike in warm pools that aren’t properly chlorinated, the CDC warns.

There are some things you can do to lower the risk of infection — but not many.

Pretty much, the only way to avoid getting infected with the brain-eating amoeba is to stay on top of keeping water from going up your nose. The CDC recommends either holding your nose closed, using nose clips, or keeping your head above water.

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