Brain-eating amoebas kill woman who rinsed sinuses with tap water
When a 69-year-old Seattle woman underwent brain surgery earlier this year at Swedish Medical Center, her doctors were stumped.
Last January, the woman was admitted to the hospital’s emergency department after suffering a seizure. Doctors took a CT scan of her brain to determine the cause, finding what they initially thought was a tumor. But an examination of tissue taken from her brain during surgery a day later showed she was up against a much deadlier attack, one that had been underway for about a year and was literally eating her alive.
“When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush,” Dr. Charles Cobbs, neurosurgeon at Swedish, said in a phone interview. “There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells. We didn’t have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue we could see it was the amoeba.”
The woman died a month later from the rare organisms that entered her brain after being in- jected into her nasal cavity by way of a neti pot, a teapot-shaped product used to rinse out the sinuses and nasal cavity, according to a case study recently published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.
The study was authored by Swedish doctors and researchers who worked on her case, including Cobbs. The publication doesn’t identify the victim.
The woman’s infection is the second ever reported in Seattle – the first came in 2013 – but the first fatality to be caused by it. In 1990, researchers first became aware that this type of amoeba can cause disease in people, according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in November. That report found there have been 109 cases of the amoeba reported in the U.S. between 1974 and 2016. Ninety percent of those cases were fatal.
Amoebas are singlecelled organisms, some of which can cause disease. Since they thrive in warm soil and water, some local doctors are growing concerned that the woman’s deadly infection could be among other southernhemisphere diseases that may become spread northward toward the Pacific Northwest amid warming temperatures. The organisms are commonly found in South America and Central America, but may now have a better chance of survival in other, usually cooler places, such as Washington.
“I think we are going to see a lot more infections that we see south (move) north, as we have a warming of our environment,” said Cynthia Maree, a Swedish infectious-disease doctor who co-authored the case study about the woman’s condition. “Considering the mortality associated with this infection, my hope was that I was wrong. But my fear was that I was right.”
In the case of the Seattle woman, she likely became infected with the amoebas from her tap water, according to the researchers. Rather than filling her neti pot with saline or sterile water, she used tap water filtered through a storebought water filter. She then shot the contaminated water far up her nasal cavity toward olfactory nerves in the upper part of her nasal cavity, causing the brain-eating infection called granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE).
Researchers are also “limited in our understanding” of the factors that increase the likelihood of contracting the disease, which may include a compromised immune system, genetics, and environmental factors, said Keenan Piper, a member of the Swedish team that produced the study.