It’s a fatal infection without an effective treatment, and one that strikes in a decidedly gruesome manner: 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.
These "brain-eating amoebas" — known to doctors and scientists as Naegleria fowleri, or N. fowleri — aren’t believed to kill often. In the US, researchers estimate that between three and eight people die from N. fowleri disease, commonly referred to as PAM (primary amebic meningoencephalitis) each year. But that might not be the case for long. In recent years, N. fowleri has popped up in unexpected locations, which some experts suggest is a sign that warmer waters — caused by brutal summer heat waves and rising temperatures across the country — are catalyzing their spread.
"The climate is changing, and let me tell you, so is this," says Travis Heggie, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who’s tracked the amoebas for several years. "If warm weather keeps up, I think we’ll see N. fowleri popping up farther and farther north."
That speculation seems to be reinforced by recent cases of PAM, once a health woe confined to fresh water in southern states like Texas and Arizona. In Minnesota, public health officials were stunned to see two fatalities caused by N. fowleri — both young children — in 2010 and 2012. The cases are the only in state history, and occurred about 550 miles farther north than any previous reported PAM fatality in the US. The amoebas have also recently killed swimmers in Kansas and Virginia, both states where earlier infections have been exceedingly rare. "You could certainly say it’s a concern of ours," said Jonathan Yoder, an expert with the CDC’s division of parasitic diseases, about the seeming progression of N. fowleri to colder regions. "We’re still trying to understand this."
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