Naegleria fowleri is a brain-eating amoeba, capable of infecting humans, that has recently taken the life of a woman from California. The microbe can cause a extremely rare infection known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
The unnamed 21-year-old victim was transported, by air, to Renown Regional Medial Center in Reno, Nevada, where she succumbed to the illness on June 20. This was just the seventh case of the disease ever recorded in California.
The amoeba infects people as they swim in warm, fresh water bodies. Entering through the nostrils, the microorganism travels through the skull before entering the brain. Once there, the microscopic lifeforms start to eat away at the vital organ.
"Our next steps are to inspect the suspected sites of exposure to find what risk factors might exist like places where people might go swimming and where the domestic water supply is on the property. I advise people to be cautious when using untreated hot springs in the Sierras. The best way to do that is to keep your head above water," Richard Johnson of Inyo Public Health said.
Infections of N. fowleri are exceptionally deadly, taking the lives of nearly everyone who becomes infected with the amoeba. However, the disease remains extremely rare, infecting fewer than eight people annually.
Medical personnel believe the young woman came into contact with the deadly amoeba on private land, so the general public is likely not in danger. The infection took place on June 16, just four days before her death. She woke up from a nap that day with a headache, which developed into nausea and vomiting. When symptoms did not clear, the young woman sought treatment at Northern Inyo Hospital, where she was diagnosed with meningitis. As the health of the patient continued to deteriorate, she was transported to Nevada, where she spent her last moments. Her final diagnosis was determined from tests performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People infected with the microorganism usually start to experience symptoms a few days after coming in contact with the amoeba. Death usually results three to seven days after the onset of initial discomfort.
"The investigation will continue, and all appropriate measures will be taken to involve and inform affected parties of any actions needing to be carried out to minimize any risk to persons in the future," Public Health Officer Richard Johnson said.
The best way to prevent such infections in backyard swimming pools is regular maintenance, as there has never been a documented case of such an infection in a pool that has been cared for properly. Public hot springs are also considered to be generally safe of the amoeba, if regular care is taken of the facilities.
Photo: Felipe Skroski | Flickr