The Smiling Face of a Deadly Brain-Eating Amoeba

Photo: D.T. John & T.B. Cole, Visuals Unlimited

The smiling face of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba above belies the havoc it can cause to your brain.

The naturally occuring organism normally feeds on bacteria and live in the mud layer of lakes and ponds, but under certain conditions it can swim around in the water. That's when an accidental encounter with a swimmer can turn deadly:

Under certain conditions, Naegleria fowleri can develop flagella—threadlike structures that enable it to rapidly move around and look for more favorable conditions. When people swim in warm freshwater during the summer, water contaminated with the moving amoeba can be forced up the nose and into the brain.

This causes headache, stiff neck, and vomiting, which progresses to more serious symptoms. Between exposure and onset, infection generally results in a coma and death after around five days.

That's what happened in primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a rare form of parasitic meningitis that was diagnosed in case of a 12-year-old Arkansas girl who has been hospitalized for over a week after being infected while swimming at Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock.

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