Brain-eating amoeba to infect more of Earth’s waters due to climate change

Infections from brain and flesh eating organisms will rise because of climate change, scientists are warning.

Dr Sandra Gompf, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, is leading the awareness campaign after her son died from contracting Naegleria fowleri in 2009.

The brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri and Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria, can thrive in warmer conditions, although at the moment incidents are rare.

However climate change could increase the chance of swimmers falling foul of water-borne brain and flesh eating bacteria scientists claim, according to ABC News.

Not only are temperatures hotter, but they are hotter for longer periods of time, which allows the pathogens to grow, said Dr Gompf.

Her son Philip, tragically died aged only 10 after contracting Naegleria fowleri while inner-tubing on a lake in Polk County, Florida, in 2009.

She and her husband, a hospital pediatrician, knew the risks but allowed their children to go under "a little bit of a false comfort level" due how rare contracting it is, she said.

About five days after exposure, Philip became ill, said Dr Gompf.

He developed a headache but did not have a fever or any apparent symptoms of meningitis.

The next morning, Philip was difficult to wake and was not able to bend his neck forward. After being rushed to the hospital, he tested positive for an "extraordinary level" of inflammation in his spinal fluid.

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Philip became brain dead within three days of the initial headache and an autopsy found a "wide-spread infection" of amoeba in organs other than his brain.

"As you might imagine, that was devastating to us," Gompf said.

"That just underscored my concern about climate change. Certainly, the one thing we want is for no one to have this happen to their child."

Once diagnosed, Naegleria fowleri is very difficult to treat, said Darien Sutton, a Los Angeles emergency medicine physician. After it enters the brain it causes a form of meningitis with it often too late to save them once symptoms have become apparent.

Vibrio vulnificus infections can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh surrounding an open wound dies.

Over the last 10 years, cases increasingly have been diagnosed outside of usual areas such as southern US states Florida and Texas.

Cases have been diagnosed as far north as Minnesota and Maryland, a "red flag" which "should signal to people a problem is brewing," Dr Sutton said.

In addition, overflow water from extreme flooding can facilitate the transmission of pathogens, said Yun Shen, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside.

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"It's intensifying the opportunity, and creating more opportunity, for these harmful things to cross our paths," said Melissa Baldwin, director of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. "Those warmer conditions are really key to a lot of these harmful pathogens."

Between 2010 and 2019 there were just 34 deaths due to brain-eating amoeba in the USA, despite millions of recreational water exposures each year, according to the Centre for Disease Control.

More than 97% of reported cases of Naegleria fowleri are fatal, with only four survivals of 148 known infections between 1962 and 2019, according to the CDC.

The amoeba enters the brain through a forceful push of water high into the naval cavity, Gompf said, adding that it is important to plug one's nose – or avoid putting your head underwater all together – when swimming in freshwater 24 degrees celsius or warmer.

The pathogen can linger in any body of freshwater, including lakes, ponds, rivers, underchlorinated water parks and municipal water, which is why it's imperative to boil water.

"With the continuing climate change, this is not something that's just going to go away," Dr Sutton said.

"It is likely that as temperatures increase, water will become more of a hospitable environment to harbour organisms, not just like this, but other bacteria and pathogens which can harm young kids who are just trying to have fun in a lake in the summer."

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