U.S. officials tracking amoeba deaths

They live in lakes, enter through nose

More such cases predicted in the future

PHOENIX: It sounds like science fiction but is true: an amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Though encounters with the microscopic bug are rare, it has killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has U.S. 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 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

According to the CDC, the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri killed 23 people in the U.S., 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 until after the 14-year-old died on September 17. At first, he seemed to be suffering from just a headache. “We didn’t know. And here I am: I come home and I’m burying him.”

After doing more tests, doctors said Aaron probably picked up the amoeba while swimming in the balmy shallows of Lake Havasu, a popular man-made lake on the Colorado river.

N. fowleri lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.

Dr. Beach said people become infected when they wade through water and stir up the bottom. If someone allows water to shoot up the nose, the amoeba can latch onto the olfactory nerve. The amoeba destroys tissue as it makes its way up into the brain, where it continues the damage, “basically feeding on the brain cells,” Dr. Beach said.

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.

Once infected, most people have little chance of survival. Some drugs have stopped the amoeba in lab experiments, but people who have been attacked rarely survive. — AP