Home Lifestyle Risk of brain-eating amoeba in British waters ‘a concern’, expert says

Risk of brain-eating amoeba in British waters ‘a concern’, expert says


Naegleria fowleri can usually be found nibbling on bacteria in warm freshwater lakes, so is very rare in the UK (Picture: Shutterstock / Jacob Lund)

‘Brain-eating amoeba’ could be making their way to British waters, because of course they are, an expert has claimed.

Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism found in warm freshwater that, if it enters through the nose, can cause a rare but almost always fatal brain infection.

Symptoms of the condition, called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis or PAM, include fever, headaches, neck stiffness, hallucinations and vomiting.

This all happens because of what gives the Naegleria its not-exactly pleasant nickname – it feasts on people’s brain tissue after shooting up their noses.

For most of the world, the microscopic organism isn’t much to worry about. But as temperatures rise in Britain amid climate change, it could soon become a worry, according to a microbiologist.

Professor in medical microbiology Naveed Khan told MailOnline: ‘With London getting very warm weather now, I think it is a serious concern here as well.’

Naegleria can be found in rivers and hot springs (Picture: NBC 2)

When asked for any recent data on Naegleria or PAM, neither the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which monitors infectious diseases, nor the NHS could provide any.

UKHSA officials stressed to Metro.co.uk that the organism is, however, ‘very rare’

Khan said he found the formant form of the amoeba in British water treatment sites between 2002 and 2008 while working on a public health project.

After the water was treated to make it drinkable, however, researchers did not find any traces of the parasite.

Naegleria is not routinely tested for, something Kham hopes will change in the future.

Naegleria thrive in warm temperatures – about 30°C – and are often found in untreated warm freshwater lakes, rivers, canals, ponds and hot springs, though they can also be present in soil.

The amoeba can hide in pipes connected to tap water, according to American health officials. However, they stress you cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking contaminated water.

You cannot be infected with the parasite by drinking contaminated water, officials say (Picture: Shutterstock/zefart)

This is something Khan worries about. ‘If there is a plumbing issue, the pipes are too old or the water is travelling for a long distance, chlorine in the water can evaporate by the time it reaches the house,’ he said.

Water in the UK goes through a five-step treatment process, such as UV disinfection, adding chlorine or activated carbon treatment, to kill any bacteria.

While out in the water, the parasite happily gobbles up bacteria.

Most Naegleria infections happen when swimming in warm lakes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Jumping or diving into untreated water causes the parasite to be pushed up people’s noses – basically acting as a waterslide straight into the brain.

Still, health officials say that even if contaminated water does get inside a person’s nose, the chance of infection is extremely small. After all, hundreds of millions swim in warm freshwater each year.

Infections are often misdiagnosed, given they start with an easy-to-shrug-off headache.

Down the line, the symptoms are all typical for someone suffering from meningitis. This is because the amoebae’s feeding causes meningoencephalitis, which similarly sees the brain and nearby tissues swell.

The infection cannot be passed from one person to another and you cannot get infected from touching or swallowing contaminated water.

In the US, there were 157 infections between 1962 through 2022. All but four of them were fatal, with a death rate of 97%.

While the mercury is rising as planet-warming fossil fuels continue to be spewed, the average rate of infection has remained largely consistent in the US – three people became infected each year between 2019 and 2022.

The UKHSA said in a report last year that infectious diseases are ‘climate-sensitive’, with warmer temperatures altering where a disease may be found.

A 2021 study found, for example, that the amoeba is moving from southern states to midwestern areas in the US.

Experts have long agreed that the best way to reduce the risk of infection is to limit how freshwater may get inside people’s noses, such as, well, not swimming in freshwater bodies.

But if you do plan so, wear a nose plug and try not to kick up sediment.

Khan said that if people use water to flush their sinuses out, such as using a neti pot, they should boil to kill pathogens and be left to cool and filter before rinsing.

Distilled, sterile or disinfected water is safe to use for nasal rinsing.

Because the infection is so rare, treatments are few and far between. However, some drugs might be a silver bullet to killing off the creatures – literally, using silver particles coated with anti-seizure medicine.

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