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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

'Brain-eating amoeba' unlikely here, experts say

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Sundayís "brain-eating amoeba" story has been among boston.comís most e-mailed stories all week, but thatís about as close as the parasite may come to us, state and national health experts said.

Six people have died this year after an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri infected them while swimming in Florida, Texas and Arizona. Thatís a spike compared to the 23 deaths from 1995 to 2004, a trend that may continue with rising temperatures, epidemiologist Michael Beach of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview.

The microscopic parasite, which lives in the bottom of warm, freshwater pools, can crawl into the brain via the olfactory nerve, the pathway from the nose to the brain that is crucial for our sense of smell. Once there, it can cause inflammation that destroys brain tissue. Symptoms typically start with a stiff neck, headache and fever, and death usually follows after three to seven days.

"This is a heat-loving bug that you really find only in hot springs or in southern tier states," Beach said. "We know we tend to see an increase in cases after an extended heat wave, and that's what we think happened this year."

A similar burst occurred in 1980, when eight people died, he said.

"Itís a very rare disease," Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the Massachusetts director of communicable disease control, said in an interview. ďWeíve never had a case in Massachusetts. We donít have that kind of environment."

People shouldnít be swimming in the kind of water where this parasite lives, DeMaria said, making it a good idea to stick to clean beaches, salt water and chlorinated pools.

"We wouldnít expect to see it here," DeMaria said.

Beach said there has not been an overall increase in the number of cases, despite the spikes that follow heat waves in states in the swath from Florida to California. But as temperatures rise because of global warming, so does concern.

"These are extremely tragic deaths," Beach said. "One has to consider with temperatures going up, the organism will compete better and we may see more cases. We want to track this."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:42 PM
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