A deadly, brain-eating amoeba usually limited to regions with warm, fresh waters like the southern US has been found as far north as Minnesota and Nebraska. This summer the organism killed a Nebraskan child and was discovered in Iowa for the first time, where it killed another swimmer during two days of record high temperatures at 95˚F (35˚C).
Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism that lives in soil, lakes and rivers. It affects humans by entering the nose and travelling to the brain where it destroys tissue, causing an illness known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. As the name suggests, the condition resembles both meningitis and encephalitis, inflammations of the skull’s membranes and the brain.
The condition is terrifyingly lethal. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), put the survival rate between 1962 and 2020 at less than 3%.
Historically, only small numbers of people have been affected and there is no evidence yet that the rate of infections, which typically affect males under 18, is increasing. However this could change as the extreme weather events associated with climate change warm waters and encourage more people to cool off by bathing. To make matters worse, droughts concentrate pathogens in surfaces and floods transfer the pathogens into homes and buildings.
There is currently no rapid test to tell us whether Naegleria fowleri is present in a local environment.
A paper published in the US Library of Medecine acknowledges the impact of the spread of the amoeba on the public imagination: “Although all available evidence points to [this] being a low-incidence disease in the United States, [it] remains a devastating and nearly universally fatal infection that erodes public confidence in the safety of everyday activities (swimming, using public drinking water) and increases stress on local public health departments that are already overextended.”
Early diagnosis and treatment are thought to be key to improving survival rates.