CDC Looks Toward Climate Change in Brain-Eating Amoeba Cases

By Jillian MacMath, Staff Writer
September 29, 2013; 12:10 AM ET
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Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are investigating whether climate change could allow for the presence of the brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria Fowleri, in locations it has not previously threatened.

Naegleria Fowleri survives in warm, fresh water and infects people when contaminated water enters the nose and travels to the brain, resulting in the deadly infection known as primary amebic meningoencephaltis, or PAM.

The infection was confirmed in four children in the U.S. in the summer of 2013, killing three.

"There certainly is a concern," Dr. Jennifer Cope, medical epidemiologist at the CDC, told

"We don't have data right now to show that the infections are increasing, but just by the virtue of the fact that it's a thermophillic organism and we're seeing warmer temperatures, I think just put those two together. It certainly is something we are concerned about and we will be paying attention to."

Most often, the infections are reported in southern-tier states, such as Florida and Texas, during the summer months. The two states have accounted for almost 50 percent of cases reported to the CDC since 1962.

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In 2012, the infection was confirmed in Minnesota, marking the first occurrence outside of a southern-tier state. State officials confirmed it occurred after a heat wave, which warmed waters and may have made the area's fresh water sources more conducive to the amoeba's growth and survival.

Evidence does not suggest that more infections will occur with climate change, the CDC stressed, but the rising temperatures could allow the amoeba to exist in previously unhospitable environments.

"It may not be that there are more infections, and we don't have evidence of that, but it could be that infections occur in places where they have previously not occurred, such as Minnesota, Kansas, places we've seen recent infections," Waterborne Disease and Outbreak Surveillance Coordinator for the CDC Jonathan Yoder said.

In late August, the amoeba was discovered in the water supply of the St. Barnard Parish in Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans after a young boy became infected. Residents were then urged to take precautions to avoid getting water in their noses.

@WWL-TV tweeted: "Flavor of St. Barnard water may change as parish targets amoeba."

More Relevant Tweets and Social Media Reaction

How the amoeba found its way into the water is still unclear, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals told

"We are certainly optimistic that we're making some progress on understanding the ecology of the organism, understanding what's important for treatment, but certainly there's a lot to learn still," Yoder said.

Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Jillian MacMath at, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Jillian or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.


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