A 50-year-old South Korean has died of a fatal amoeba infection after a trip to Thailand.
According to the South Korean daily The Korea Timesdoctors have identified a case of infection with Naegleria fowleri. This is the very first time that the presence of a microorganism has been documented in the country.
If this story has made headlines in the land of K-pop, it is because it is not a critter like the others. It is an amoeba, a single-celled organism group distinct from bacteria and viruses. But unlike the latter, amoebas can lead a free life; they do not necessarily need to infect a host to complete their life cycle.
But some are still capable of it, and this is the case with Naegleria fowleri. It can develop in bodies of fresh water when two conditions are met. First, it must have access to a sufficient amount of nutrients.
The second constraint is the temperature. When it is too chilly, the amoeba thickens its wall to pass into a dormant form. It can thus remain for a long time while waiting for favorable conditions.
But once the water is hot enough for its taste, it passes into a so-called flagellated form which is able to move. It can then enter the human body through the nose. And that is precisely what happened to the South Korean patient. According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), he was infected during a trip to Thailand.
Once installed, Naegleria fowleri tries to cross the nasal mucosa. It most often fails; but when it does, it travels along the olfactory nerve to reach the brain…and that’s where the trouble begins.
A gluttonous amoeba that devours brain cells
Indeed, this amoeba has a particular appetite for the neurons and glial cells that make up our brain. Once there, it therefore begins to eat them (or more precisely, to engulf them). She therefore did not steal her nickname of “brain eater”.
Once nourished, it begins to reproduce, thus giving life to new voracious little amoebae. Over time, this invasion leads to inevitably dramatic hemorrhages and necroses in this vital organ.
For the patient, this first results in symptoms comparable to those of meningitis. It starts with a high fever, sensitivity to light, nausea, severe headaches and difficult speech. Very quickly, he finds himself in a pseudocomatose state which leads to death in more than 90% of cases. Unfortunately, the South Korean tourist didn’t prove the statistics wrong; he died on December 21.
Watch out for hot water
Fortunately, these infections remain extremely rare. According to an ANSES document dating from 2014, only one case of infection has been documented in France. And that’s good, since there is no real treatment. The KCDA therefore recalled that to protect yourself from it, you must above all take precautions before going splashing around.
If you are planning to travel to an area with many bodies of fresh water above 25°C, such as South America, Africa, India or Southeast Asia, then find out with the travel agency or the premises. And if this is impossible, it is better to refrain from putting your head under water.