- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

PHOENIX (AP) — It sounds like science fiction but it’s true: A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it’s killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases in the future.

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Mr. Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

According to the CDC, the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri killed 23 persons in the United States from 1995 to 2004. This year health officials noticed a spike with six cases — three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. The CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since its discovery in Australia in the 1960s.

In Arizona, David Evans said nobody knew his son, Aaron, was infected with the amoeba until after the 14-year-old died on Sept. 17. At first, the teen seemed to be suffering from nothing more than a headache.

“We didn’t know,” Mr. Evans said. “And here I am: I come home and I’m burying him.”

After doing more tests, doctors said Aaron probably picked up the amoeba the previous week while swimming in the balmy shallows of Lake Havasu, a popular man-made lake on the Colorado River between Arizona and California.

Though infections tend to be found in Southern states, Naegleria lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.

Mr. Beach said people become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom. If someone allows water to shoot up the nose — say, by doing a somersault in chest-deep water — the amoeba can latch onto the olfactory nerve.

People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers. In the later stages, they will show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, he said.

Mr. Beach cautioned that people shouldn’t panic about the dangers of the brain-eating bug. Cases are still extremely rare considering the number of people swimming in lakes. The easiest way to prevent infection, Mr. Beach said, is to use nose clips when swimming or diving in fresh water.

“You’d have to have water going way up in your nose to begin with” to be infected, he said.

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