Brain-eating amoeba kills first in Korea

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 Times, doctors have identified a case of infection with Naegleria fowleri. It 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’s because it’s not a creature like the others. It is an amoeba, a single-celled group of organisms distinct from bacteria and viruses. But unlike the latter, amoebae 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 freshwater areas when two conditions are met. First, it must have access to a sufficient amount of nutrients.

The other limitation is the temperature. When it is too cool, the amoeba thickens its wall to go into a resting form. It can thus be left standing for a long time while waiting for favorable conditions.

But when the water is warm enough for its taste, it turns into a so-called flagellated form, which is able to move. It can then enter the human body through the nose. And that is exactly 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 trying to cross the nasal mucosa. It fails most often; but when it does, it travels along the olfactory nerve to reach the brain… and that’s where the problems begin.

A voracious amoeba that devours brain cells

In fact, this amoeba has a special appetite for neurons and glial cells that make up our brain. Once there, therefore, it begins to eat them (or, more precisely, to devour them). She therefore did not steal her nickname “brain eater”.

Once nourished, it begins to multiply, giving life to new voracious little amoebas. Over time, this invasion inevitably leads to dramatic bleeding and necrosis in this vital organ.

For the patient, this first results in symptoms comparable to meningitis. It starts with high fever, sensitivity to light, nausea, severe headache and difficulty speaking. 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.

Beware of hot water

Fortunately, these infections remain extremely rare. According to an ANSES document from 2014, only one case of infection has been documented in France. And that’s a good thing, since there’s no real treatment. KCDA therefore reminded that to protect yourself from it, above all, take precautions before going splashing around.

If you plan to travel to an area with many freshwater areas above 25°C, such as South America, Africa, India or Southeast Asia, check with the travel agent or the premises. And if this is impossible, it is better to refrain from putting your head under water.

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