No, we're not talking the Twilight Zone here. A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.
The microscopic critter, Naegleria fowleri (nuh-GLEER-ee-uh FOWL'-erh-eye), killed 23 people in the United States, from 1995 to 2004. This year health officials noticed a spike with six cases — three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. The victims were all boys and young men.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since the brain eater was discovered in Australia in the 1960s.
Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the CDC, said people become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom.
If someone allows water to shoot up the nose — say, by doing a somersault in chest-deep water — the amoeba can latch onto the olfactory nerve.The killer amoeba lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.
The amoeba destroys tissue as it makes its way up into the brain, where it continues the damage, "basically feeding on the brain cells," Beach said.
People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers. In the later stages, they'll show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, he said.
Once infected, most people have little chance of survival. Some drugs have stopped the amoeba in lab experiments, but people who have been attacked rarely survive, Beach said.
"Usually, from initial exposure it's fatal within two weeks," he said.
Researchers still have much to learn about the amoeba. They don't know why, children are more likely to be infected, and boys are more often victims than girls.
More at the CDC website.