This Brain-Eating Parasite Flourishes in Climate-Warmed Waters

The microscopic killer Naegleria fowleri is finding it increasingly easier to live in northern latitudes.

Naegleria fowleri. Any questions? (Photo: Flickr)

Aug 1, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

The “Terrible Things That Love Climate Change Fan Club,” headed by the leadership troika of hurricanes, wildfires, and the bark beetle, is proud to announce the admittance of its newest member: Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating parasite.

The microscopic amoeba kills between three and eight people per year, but this death count could rise as climate change turns up the thermostat of the waters in which it thrives, say scientists.

“The climate is changing, and let me tell you, so is this,” Travis Heggie, a professor at Bowling Green State University, told The Verge. “If warm weather keeps up, I think we’ll see N. fowleri popping up farther and farther north.”

As far north as Minnesota, in fact. Since 2010, two children have died in the state from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the disease caused by Naegleria fowleri.

Trust me, you want no part of this invisible killer.

Forget for a moment that only two people have survived after becoming infected with it. Let’s focus on just how Naegleria fowleri will do you in.

An amoebic organism lurking in water is inadvertently inhaled during a swim on a hot summer’s day. From there, it travels through the nasal passage and into the brain, where it multiplies, devours one’s cerebral fluid and gray matter, and almost invariably causes death.

And here you thought the worst thing that could possibly happen during your weekend trip to the lake was your Dad rocking a Speedo for Saturday afternoon’s tubing excursion.

We’re not saying you need to become an aquaphobic and avoid all summer water activities. But be smart. Pay attention to these four steps from The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention on what you can do to avoid infection:

- Avoid water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater, hot springs, and thermally polluted water such as water around powerplants.

- Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.

- Hold the nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, or hot springs.

- Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

Thanks to Climate Progress' Joe Romm for the story tip.