Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sea Monsters: Rare but Deadly

Before I even get started I want to pull to the fore what this article from CNN.com left until the final paragraph. According to Francine Cabral, professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School:

The incidence of this disease is very, very small, but when it happens it’s tragic.

“It” is a disease imparted to humans who have been exposed to a specific type of amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba live in fresh, warm water such as lakes, rivers and even poorly treated backyard pools and enter a human body through the nose. Though the article notes that Naegleria are not naturally human parasites, once they are inside you they start poking around for something to eat. The something they generally turn to are the neurons of the host’s brain.

The amoeba multiply quickly once they’ve found a source of nutrition causing the person to become ill with what is known as amoebic meningoencephalitis. The two most unfortunate points about this disease are that it is close to 100% fatal and, in this day and age, it is usually caught by children. Symptoms start out seeming flu like; headache, nausea and vomiting, neck stiffness and a particularly high fever. Later symptoms include much more horrific manifestations such as seizures and hallucinations. Eventually the brain, overwhelmed, simply shuts down usually three to seven days after infection. As of this writing, four young people in the U.S. lost their lives to Naegleria this summer.

The symptoms of the disease, which has been known in the states for over 20 years, sound curiously similar to a fever/seizure disorder described by buccaneer doctor Alexander Exquemelin. Men following Henry Morgan on the trek across the isthmus to the raid on Panama City became horribly ill with these symptoms and died in “half a fortnight” or about seven days. Though Exquemelin does not mention the crossing of or swimming through warm water, Panama is by and large a steamy jungle and doubtless fording streams was part of the hardship. While there is no evidence to suggest that Naegleria was the culprit 300 plus years ago, it’s a curious possibility.

For modern parents, there are simple ways to keep your children out of harm’s way. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Naegleria amoeba is active from July to September. All people, but especially children, should avoid swimming in untreated or poorly treated water during those months and when temperatures are high. Using nose clips in warm fresh water, or keeping your head out of the water all together, is another precaution. Finally, don’t go digging around in those gooey underwater sediments while you’re in shallow, warm, fresh water. That’s where the critters most enjoy hanging out.

While living like a buccaneer may seem appealing, dying like one certainly is not. Stay safe out there, Brethren; you’ll be glad you did.

Header: Amoeba via Jason Champion


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, I'm glad we don't have to worry about this one up here in Alaska.

Now, freezing to death is bad, but it doesn't seem as bad as this (at least it's quicker, anyway)...

Pauline said...

I agree completely. The truly tragic thing to me is that the median age of those infected with Naegleria is 12. Thank goodness this is a very rare occurence.