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17 Dec, 2020 10:25

Deadly brain-eating amoeba spreading across US via interconnected freshwater systems

Deadly brain-eating amoeba spreading across US via interconnected freshwater systems

Cases of a “brain-eating amoeba” reported across the southern US have begun spreading northward via the country's freshwater systems, in a worrying development for health officials already struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a new study, the single-celled, brain-eating amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri (N. fowleri) has been relentlessly spreading northward over the past four decades. 

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked N. fowleri’s four-decade killing spree across the southern US and noted cases are occurring at higher latitudes, likely due to the effects of climate change.

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The number of cases has remained the same year-on-year, but the geographic distribution is cause for concern. N. fowleri causes a devastating and often fatal brain infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). 

It is found in warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. In each case, contaminated water goes up a person's nose, from which the infection spreads upwards into the patient's brain stem through their olfactory nerves. 

Infections have shifted northward by approximately 8.2 miles (13.3 kilometers) per year, with cases in the study tracing back as far as 1978, all of which were tied to recreational water exposure.

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The researchers also noted higher daily average temperatures recorded in the two weeks prior to each infection. 

“It is possible that rising temperatures and consequent increases in recreational water use, such as swimming and water sports, could contribute to the changing epidemiology of PAM,” the authors wrote.

Unfortunately, there is currently no rapid test for the presence of N. fowleri in water, so the only public health advice at present is to avoid warm freshwater during periods of good weather or, alternatively, for swimmers to plug their nose or keep it above water.

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