Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba – a single-celled organism that moves by crawling – that lives in freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs along with other species of naegleria. However, it differs from other harmless species in that if it gets the chance it will devour your brain.
Fowleri is the only species of naegleria that can infect humans, and it usually does so at higher temperatures where it grows, in shallow bodies of water. The infection (although incredibly rare) is usually picked up when people put their heads under water, with the amoeba traveling to the nose and brain, where it causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a disease that is “always fatal” with a 97 percent chance of death. cent, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Once in the brain, it begins to destroy brain tissue, producing similar symptoms—such as headache, fever, stiff neck, and confusion—to bacterial meningitis. Lack of interest in the surroundings, epileptic seizures and coma also occur in patients, and the disease usually causes death within five days of the onset of symptoms. Of the 154 people known to have contracted the amoeba since 1962, only four survived.
Fortunately, the infection is incredibly rare, with only 31 reported infections over the past decade. However, the areas where the amoeba was found (and the people infected) are expanding further across the United States as temperatures rise.
One study, which looked at recorded cases of PAM as well as temperature information for the area where the infection was caught, compared this temperature to historical data for the same area 20 years earlier.
“We observed an increase in air temperatures in the two weeks prior to exposure compared to 20-year historical averages,” the team wrote in the report, published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
“The rise in cases in the Midwest region after 2010 and increases in maximum and middle latitudes of exposure to PAM indicate a northward expansion of exposure to N. fowleri associated with lakes, ponds, reservoirs, rivers, streams, and outdoor aquatic settings in the United States,” it states.
Official numbers for 2022 have yet to be released by the CDC, but as Insider points out, cases appear to be creeping up north, with a fatal case detected in Lake Iowa for the first time. The same was true of Nebraska, where a child died of the disease, which tends to affect children 14 and younger, possibly due to increased exposure to the amoeba through playing in the water.
“Our areas are getting warmer,” Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsey Hoss said at a news conference following the death of a child in Nebraska.
“As things get warmer, water gets hotter and water levels go down due to dehydration, you see this organism being happier and growing more typical in those situations.”
As the climate crisis continues, disease will likely continue to creep north.