The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that a brain-eating amoeba has infected a person in South Carolina.
The person is thought to have become infected when they were swimming in the Edisto River in Charleston County two weeks ago, and is currently fighting for their life in a South Carolina hospital.
The culprit is Naegleria fowleri, a rare water-dwelling amoeba commonly known as "the brain-eating amoeba." Typically, these amoebas live in fresh, warm waters and feed on bacteria. However, if they’re given the chance, they will happily feed on brain cells and nerve tissue. Once the amoeba has begun its invasion of the central nervous system, symptoms include severe headaches, fever, vomiting, seizures, changes in taste and smell, confusion, lack of balance, and visual hallucinations.
A courier from a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Florida has driven for six hours with capsules of the drug miltefosine to give to the infected patient, the Associated Press reports. Miltefosine is a broad-spectrum drug that can be used to tackle Leishmania parasite infections. This drug has only been used once before on a sufferer of the deadly brain-eating amoeba. Each round of treatment costs around $48,000.
Infections in humans are fortunately very rare. In the past decade, there’s been less than 40 reported cases in the US. Nevertheless, if you are unfortunate enough to become infected, the outlook is grim. The CDC say that the chances of recovery from this disease are low, although “early diagnosis and new treatments might increase the chances for survival.”
In the CDC press statement, Dr Linda Bell explained the strict circumstances required for Naegleria fowleri infection: "First, you must be swimming in water in which the amoeba is present," she said. "Second, you must jump into the amoeba-containing water feet-first, allowing the water to go up your nose with enough force that the amoeba can make its way to the brain. Most commonly, exposure results in the amoeba dying before causing infection.
"You should avoid swimming or jumping into bodies of fresh water when the water is warm and the water levels are low. Also, you should either hold your nose or use a nose plug. You cannot be infected by merely drinking water containing the ameba."