Over the weekend, a sixteen-year-old girl lost her life to a rare infection from an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which eats neurons in the brain (in the image here, you can see the amoeba eating rat neurons). Most likely she caught it while swimming in a river near her Florida home. Experts say the Naegleria fowleri ameoba is most likely to breed during the summer months in the South, but infections are so rare that people are unlikely to know when they see an infection.
The teen's mother watched her daughter grow sicker, running a high fever and throwing up, but had no idea what to do. A local hospital gave them some painkillers and sent her home. It wasn't until the teen became delirious that her mother brought her to another hospital and got the proper diagnosis, but by then it was too late. The ameoba makes fast work of eating neurons, destroying huge amounts of brain tissue within days.
The amoeba is not a parasite. A human is an "accidental end point for the amoeba after it's forced up the nose," [CDC waterborne disease expert Jonathan] Yoder said. It does not seek human hosts.
But when an amoeba gets lodged into a person's nose, it starts looking for food. It ends up in the brain and starts eating neurons.
"It causes a great deal of trauma and a great deal of damage," Yoder said. "It's a tragic infection. It's right at the frontal lobe. It affects behavior and the core of who they are — their emotions, their ability to reason — it's very difficult."
Early symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and neck stiffness. Later symptoms include confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.
The amoeba multiplies, and the body mounts a defense against the infection. This, combined with the rapidly increasing amoebas, cause the brain to swell, creating immense pressure. At some point, the brain stops working.
Death typically occurs three to seven days after the symptoms start.