Brain-eating amoeba likely killed child in Nebraska

Further tests are being conducted to confirm that the amoeba involved was, in fact, Naegleria Fowleri. 

 Naegleria fowleri, also known as the "brain-eating" amoeba (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Naegleria fowleri, also known as the "brain-eating" amoeba
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A child in Douglas County, Nebraska passed away earlier this week from a suspected infection from the brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, the Douglas County Health Department reported on Wednesday. This comes just two weeks after a man died in northern Israel from the same cause. 

The child had been swimming in the Elkhorn River on Sunday, and the cause of death was determined to be Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM). Further tests are being conducted to confirm that the amoeba involved was, in fact, Naegleria fowleri. 

Death by PAM

This is the second death caused by Naegleria fowleri in the American midwest this summer. Last month, a Missouri resident died from infection by the amoeba after swimming at Lake of Three Fires State Park in Iowa. The Iowa Department of Public Health has since temporarily closed the park for swimming.

 (Naegleria fowleri lifecycle stages. A: Cyst of N. fowleri in culture. Naegleria fowleri does not form cysts in human tissue. Cysts in the environment and culture are spherical, 7-15 µm in diameter and have a smooth, single-layered wall. Cyst) (credit: CDC) (Naegleria fowleri lifecycle stages. A: Cyst of N. fowleri in culture. Naegleria fowleri does not form cysts in human tissue. Cysts in the environment and culture are spherical, 7-15 µm in diameter and have a smooth, single-layered wall. Cyst) (credit: CDC)

PAM, despite its rarity, is nearly always fatal. The CDC explains that humans become infected when water containing the amoeba enters the nose and migrates to the brain; infection cannot occur through drinking contaminated water.  Symptoms start an average of five days from exposure, and the infected generally die within two weeks. There are only five known survivors of PAM in North America. The CDC concludes that, although the prognosis is grim, early diagnosis and creative new treatments such as therapeutic hypothermia can increase chances of survival. 

Climate change's impact on amoeba activity

According to the CDC, Naegleria fowleri infections are very rare, with only 154 cases reported in the US between 1962 and 2021. Of those, 71 cases occurred since the year 2000. The amoeba thrives in warm water and consequently, most US infections have been recorded in Texas and Florida

However, infections have slowly begun to creep up north.

“Our regions are becoming warmer. As things warm up, the water warms up and water levels drop because of drought, you see that this organism is a lot happier and more typically grows in those situations.”

Dr. Lindsay Huse

Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse attributed the amoeba's recent migration to climate change, reports the Associated Press (AP). During a press conference on Thursday, she said, “Our regions are becoming warmer. As things warm up, the water warms up and water levels drop because of drought, you see that this organism is a lot happier and more typically grows in those situations.”

The AP also cited researcher Sutherland Maciver, who studied Naegleria fowleri at the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences at Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland, and stated that scientists cannot say with complete certainty that the amoeba's appearance in Nebraska is directly linked to climate change.