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Brain-Eating Disease
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I met him once: the young surgeon who saved a dear friend’s life. An exceptionally good surgeon, he had saved or improved the function of many other lives, but none could save his life no matter how desperately they tried. Somehow, in the fall of 2013, he acquired the brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri.

This organism can be found around the world. In the U.S., it is found mostly in the southern-tier states. Summer and early fall are prime times for it to inhabit fresh water ponds, lakes, rivers, and hot springs, especially when the water is warm and lake and stream levels are low. Swimming pools not properly cleaned and chlorinated, and even water heaters, can harbor the organism. It grows best at higher temperatures up to 115°F (46° C).

The only way the parasite affects humans is by water entering the nostrils. From there it attacks the brain. (Persons have contracted this disease by flushing their sinuses with unsterilized tap water.) A 2012 report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that “of the 128 people known to be infected in the U.S. since 1962, only one person has survived.”

In the summer of 2013, a 12-year old Arkansas girl, who contracted the disease after swimming in a water park, became the second or possibly third person known to survive. She was hospitalized for an extended period and treated with an experimental drug, Miltefosine. Though she survived, she had to learn to walk and function again.

That same summer a 12-year old Florida boy acquired the organism while knee-boarding in a drainage ditch. Though also treated with Miltefosine, he did not survive.

Rare, Dreadful Thing

Why mention such a rare, dreadful thing just as warm days of summer arrive? Because the loss of even one child or adult is too many. There is only one way the organism can harm: by water entering the nostrils. From there it travels to the brain where it rapidly destroys the brain tissue. There is no way to test who will be susceptible.

It is NOT “sissy” to wear nose-clips or to hold one’s nose when jumping into water or swimming. The organism cannot harm if it is swallowed—only if it is inhaled. Keep the head above water. (Naegleria fowleri is NOT found in salt water.)

Please don’t consider it as over-reactive or over-protective to be cautious of where you or your children will swim or enjoy water sports. You have no way of knowing if you or your loved one could be that rare person infected.

Symptoms of the disease start from one to seven days after infection, and may include headache, fever, nausea, and/or vomiting. The mother of the 12-year-old boy noted that he slept all day—unusual for him. The doctor awoke one morning to discover he couldn’t see. He was rushed to the hospital. The next day, he could no longer speak.

This disease and how it works is like a bad science fiction plot—except it is real. Practice caution.

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By Lois Pecce. Copyright © 2014 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

Resources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/naegleria ; Roz Zurko Hartford, Top News Examiner

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