An infection with the “brain-eating” amoeba Naegleria fowleri is rare, but almost always fatal. It reproduces primarily in warm fresh water.

The amoeba “Naegleria Fowleri,” often called the “brain-eating amoeba,” causes a disease that is very rare but usually fatal, as Deutsche Welle reports. According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States’ national health authority, only 29 people in the USA were infected with this pathogen between 2013 and 2022 – but with a fatality rate of around 97 percent. Just recently, a 17-year-old girl from Georgia died in the USA as a result of such an infection.

The thermophilic amoebae prefer warm fresh water, which means that they can be found in lakes and rivers, especially in the warmer months, but also in insufficiently chlorinated swimming pools or contaminated drinking water, Deutsche Welle reports.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) emphasizes that Naegleria fowleri can also occur in temperate climates in natural or artificially heated waters. The optimal temperature for the reproduction of this amoeba is between 30 and 46 degrees Celsius. The pathogen cannot be found in salt water, however.

Normally, Naegleria fowleri feeds on bacteria found in water and soil. However, the route to humans takes place via water when the amoeba is ingested through the nose, for example when swimming or diving in contaminated water, according to “Deutsche Welle”.

The CDC notes that transmission of the amoeba occurs exclusively in water via the nasal route and not through the air or by drinking contaminated water.

From the nose it travels to the brain, where it causes a severe form of meningoencephalitis called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). After an incubation period of three to 14 days, symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting, headaches and neurological deficits occur, which can quickly lead to death, it continues.

Treatment of meningoencephalitis caused by Naegleria fowleri is complex and involves a combination of medications, including antibiotics and antifungals. The preparations used include rifampin and amphotericin B. In addition, the drug miltefosine, which was originally used against breast cancer, is considered promising in combating the amoeba.

However, given the speed at which the infection progresses, there is often little time for successful treatment, according to Deutsche Welle. Increasing global warming could exacerbate the problem, as warmer water temperatures create ideal conditions for the amoeba. Preventive measures and early diagnosis are therefore crucial in the fight against this rare but deadly pathogen.

Despite the potential danger of Naegleria fowleri, the overall risk of infection is very low. For comparison, while 29 cases of PAM were reported in the United States from 2013 to 2022, there were more than 4,000 drowning deaths. However, vigilance against this amoeba should not be relaxed, especially in the warmer months, when the enjoyment of water sports can dull awareness of such risks.

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