Woman dies from rare brain-eating amoeba after using tap water

Lynette PayneDec 09, 2018

According to the doctors who treated the woman, the non-sterile water that she used it thought to have contained Balamuthia mandrillaris, an amoeba that over the course of weeks to months can cause a very rare and nearly always fatal infection in the brain. She developed a fast-growing brain tumor.

When Dr Cobbs next operated on the woman, the growth had grown to the size of a baseball, and that too much of her brain tissue had been killed for medics to save her.

An amoeba is a single-cell organism that can cause fatal disease in humans, and they live in warm soil and water.

"The pathologist was able to look at it under a microscope and see the characteristic, actually the amoeba, in the tissue", said Dr. Charles Cobbs, Swedish Neuroscience Institute.

It turned out, her brain was riddled with a brain-eating amoeba called Balamuthia mandrillari.

According to a study recently published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, doctors believe the woman likely became infected when she used tap water in her neti pot, a teapot-like vessel used to flush out nasal passages. But if you do use a neti pot, "definitely use sterile water or saline", he added.

The 69-year-old woman, from Seattle, died in February after undergoing brain surgery at Swedish Medical Centre.

Amoebas may be found in fresh-water sources around Puget Sound such as wells, but aren't present in city-treated water, according to Liz Coleman, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Public Health division of the state's Department of Health.

People can't be infected by simply swallowing water contaminated with amoebas. She wasn't immediately aware of any other local cases of infection. And it's hard to grow the amoeba in the lab, because it doesn't grow on agar, a commonly used cell-culturing medium used in labs. That aligns with what the victim experienced, as her first likely symptom was a red sore on her nose that doctors kept misdiagnosing as the common skin condition rosacea.

Over the next several days, additional scans revealed that whatever was happening in her brain was getting worse. In the meantime, the scientists recommend that doctors conduct amoeba testing in cases of nasal sores and ring-enhancing brain lesions.

But how did the amoebas get in her brain in the first place? There have only been around 200 reported cases of infection worldwide, although around 70 of those cases were in the US alone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"From my understanding it's everywhere. At least I hope not".

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