South Korea has reported its first ever case of, and subsequent death by, the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. The patient, who died on December 21, had been suffering from meningitis symptoms, which were caused by the pathogen, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) confirmed Monday.
In a statement, the KDCA said the patient had experienced fever, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness, and loss of the ability to speak, having recently returned home from a four-month trip to Thailand.
After running tests, the agency confirmed the presence of N. fowleri, a free-living, highly pathogenic, single-celled organism that can cause fatal primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) in humans.
N. fowleri is typically found in freshwater, including lakes, rivers, and hot springs. It is the only species of Naegleria that infects humans, and while infections are rare, they are often fatal – the death rate is over 97 percent. The amoeba enters the body via the nose and travels to the brain, where it can cause PAM, an infection characterized by the destruction of brain tissue, brain swelling, and usually death.
The KDCA did not comment on the route of transmission in this case, but they cautioned that infections most commonly occur when swimming in lakes or rivers and nasal rinsing with contaminated water.
“To prevent Fowler free amoeba infection, take special care when traveling to areas where Fowler free amoeba has been reported, refrain from swimming and leisure activities, and use clean water,” KDCA director, Ji Young-mi, advised.
Just last month, N. fowleri infections were reported to be spreading in the US, where they appear to be creeping further north than usual, with cases identified in Iowa and Nebraska.