February 23, 2020

Beware the Brain-Eating Amoeba

“Last week, a North Carolina man became a notorious microbial killer’s first confirmed victim this year. The 59-year-old Eddie Gray had unknowingly come across a brain-eating amoeba while swimming in a man-made lake near Fayetteville in mid-July; 10 days later, he was dead.

Since the brain-eating amoeba was first recognized and named, in 1970, grisly reports of its disastrous attacks have made headlines nearly every year. About 97 percent of confirmed cases in the United States have been fatal. But the infection is also incredibly rare, and the small sample size leaves the epidemiologists who study it and the doctors who encounter it with their hands tied. It may be one of nature’s most perfect crimes.

Despite their gruesome moniker, most brain-eating amoebas never eat a single brain. The single-celled swimmer, formally known as Naegleria fowleri, passes its time resting in a dormant state or, when it’s warm enough, splashing around and munching on bacteria. Unlike most waterborne pathogens, it’s utterly benign if you drink it. It becomes dangerous only when, thanks to a person enjoying a day at a water park or a quick rinse in a stream, the amoeba is yanked from its bacterial buffet and swept into the dark recesses of the human nose.”

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