picture of naegrleria fowleria microbe

Brain Eating Amoebas: Not the Most Dangerous Waterborne Disease

It’s World Water Week, so let’s talk about the unusual ways that water can kill you: on August 5th, a 9-year-old boy died in the US, in Virginia, from swimming. He didn’t drown, or get a chill. He was infected by a parasite called Naegleria fowleri. Also known as the flesh-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri enters through the nose and then travels up and infects the brain, causing a usually fatal infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis.

The same infection killed a man in Louisiana in June and a 16-year-old girl in Florida this month. There is no effective treatment for Naegleria fowleri, although strong antibiotics and antifungal medicine may be of some help. Mostly, though, if your brain is infected with Naegleria fowleri, you die as a result. The mortality rate is 98%.

I think we can all agree that this is both sad and horrifying. No one should die from a summer swim on a hot day, or in the case of the poor guy from Louisiana, sinus irrigation. And in the US, we generally don’t. Water is not our enemy.

That’s not true in the developing world. In the developing world, people die all the time from waterborne diseases, especially kids. Neglected tropical diseases, unfortunately, are nowhere near as rare as flesh-eating amoebas. Dracunculiasis (Guinea Worm Disease) and Schistosomiasis are common throughout Africa. Schistosomiasis even has a lifecycle a lot like that of Naegeria fowleri.

Neither of those diseases, though, tends to be fatal. Incredibly painful, crippling and disfiguring. But not actually fatal. What’s fatal to children is diarrhea, which comes not from swimming in infected water, but drinking it.

It’s sad when you can go for a refreshing swim on a hot summer’s day. It is torture when every drink of water is a game of chance and the losers are young children. The tragic deaths from Naegleria fowleri in the US are also blessedly rare. Deaths from diarrhea are not rare. It would be a better world if diarrhea deaths were as rare as dying from a brain-eating amoeba. And we can do it. There are a lot of ways you can reduce deaths from diarrhea.

You can improve medical care for sick kids, so the diarrhea doesn’t kill them, for one. Train health care providers in Integrated Management of Childhood Illness, so they can diagnose and treat kids with diarrhea in the most effective way possible. Teach parents at home how to take care of their kids with diarrhea. Make sure everyone has access to oral rehydration solution. For another, keep diarrhea from happening in the first place. Vaccinate children for rotavirus, the virus that often causes diarrhea. Support hand-washing, water treatment, and access to a modern toilet.

If we do the right things, we can make deaths from diarrhea a rare and heartbreaking shock, not an everyday reality. World Water Week is the time to think about it.

(photo credit: marsmet501)