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Brits warned deadly ‘brain-eating parasite’ in fresh waters ‘a serious concern’ as temperatures rise

BRITS could be at risk of contracting a “brain-eating amoeba” when swimming, an expert has warned.

Amoebas are single-cell organisms and Naegleria fowleri in particular lurks in rivers, lakes and ponds as well as tap water.

Fresh water swimming could become a perilous activity as temperatures rise, a microbiologist has warned[/caption]

If it enters your body through the nose and feats on the brain, it can cause a rare but dangerous brain infection.

The parasitic infection – called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) – is fatal to most people who contract it, killing up to 99 per cent of people who get infected.

While its most commonly found in warmer climates, experts have warned that Naegleria fowleri may soon become a worry to Brits as temperatures climb due to climate change.

Naveed Khan, a professor of medical microbiology, told MailOnline he’d spotted dormant forms of the brain-eating amoeba in UK water treatment sites in London and Nottingham between 2002 and 2008, while working on a public health project.

This was before before the water was treated and no traces of the parasite were found afterwards.

But Prof Khan warned the the risk posed by the parasite could be rising along with climate change, which is causing summers to become progressively warmer.

“With London getting very warm weather now, I think it is a serious concern here as well,” he told MailOnline.

Naegleria is not routinely tested for, which Khan hopes will change in the future.

He believes more tests for Naegleria should be conducted on UK water over several seasons.

In response to his warnings, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) told that the parasite is “very rare”.

Neither UKHSA or the NHS could provide recent data on Naegleria or PAM.

Naegleria can be found globally in untreated freshwater and soil, including in the UK, but Prof Khan noted that it’s only deadly to humans when water temperatures rise above 30°C.

Warmer temperatures provide a more favourable environment for the amoeba to transform into an “infective form”, where it develops a biological “hook” to attach to cells lining the nose.

People die within 24 to 72 hours by the time they show up to hospital with symptoms

Naveed KhanProfessor of medical microbiology

It infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose, typically when when people go swimming, diving, or when they put their heads under fresh water in lakes and rivers, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain, where it destroys the brain tissue and causes a devastating infection.  

While you can’t be infected by the parasite from drinking tap water, rinsing out your nose with contaminated tap water could put you at risk of PAM, the health watchdog warned.

But health officials still note that the chance of contracting PAM is rare.

Symptoms of almost-always fatal bug

In the rare instance that an infection does occur, symptoms can be confused with meningitis, so PAM is hard to diagnose.

One of the first signs is a headache, which patients and health professionals alike would dismiss as a minor ailment. 

But as the illness progresses, it can cause a stiff neck and headache – similar to symptoms caused by bacterial meningitis.

A delay in diagnosis of PAM can further lower people’s chances of survival, according to Prof Khan.

“People die within 24 to 72 hours by the time they show up to hospital with symptoms,” he told MailOnline.

“If you get it, 99 per cent of the time you will die because there is no effective treatment.”

He referred to post mortem examinations following cases of the infection in Malaysia and Pakistan, which revealed that patients had been misdiagnosed with bacteria meningitis when they actually had Naegleria.

Prof Khan believes this happens because there isn’t not enough training on brain-eating amoeba infections.

Plus, diagnosing PAM requires a lumbar puncture, a complex procedure involving taking fluid from a patient’s spine. 

He said: “Although the amoeba is very rare there needs to be more awareness by physicians.”

Just a handful of cases of Naegleria fowleri infections have been recorded in the US in recent years.

A total of 29 infections were reported to the CDC between 2013 and 2022, between zero and five annually.

Three people were infected each year between 2019 and 2022.

Meanwhile, a UKHSA report  published last year that infectious diseases are “climate-sensitive”, with warmer temperatures altering where a disease may be found.

The best way to protect yourself from Naegleria fowleri infections to prevent water from going up your nose by holding it shut or wearing a nose clip, limiting warm freshwater swimming, and avoiding kicking up sediment in shallow, warm fresh water. 

Prof Khan also issued a warning to people using devices called neti pots to rinse out their sinuses.

He them to only use saline or steralised water to avoid the risk of a infection from tap water.

Professor Khan said the devices can be a “breeding ground” for the amoeba, especially if people leave water standing in them for long periods of time.

“If this water is not clean, it can cause serious risks,” he said. 

“If the water is left for a long time in the neti pot, the chlorine the water has been traded with can evaporate.”

He suggested boiling the water first to kill any bugs and bacteria and letting it cool before using it.

It comes after experts warned that rinsing out your nose to ease hay fever symptoms might introduce germs into your body if you don’t do it correctly.

What are the symptoms of a Naegleria fowleri infection?

Naegleria fowleri causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection that destroys brain tissue.

In its early stages, symptoms may be similar to those caused by bacterial meningitis.

First symptoms usually start with five days after infection, but they can start within one to 12 days.

They may include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Later symptoms can include:

  • A stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Lack of attention to people and surroundings
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma

After symptoms start, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days.

Source: CDC


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