Warning over deadly ‘brain-eating parasite’ in fresh waters as temperatures rise – full list of symptoms

By Staff 6 Min Read

Naegleria fowleri, which is a free-living amoeba, lurks in rivers, lakes and ponds and can cause a brain infection, the symptoms of which include headache and vomiting

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Brits could be at risk of contracting a deadly brain infection when swimming in lakes and ponds this summer, an expert has warned.

Temperatures have already increased significantly over the Easter weekend – to nearly 18C in West Sussex – and these are optimum conditions for a “brain-eating parasite” called naegleria fowleri, it is said.

Naveed Khan, a professor of medical microbiology, says the free-living amoeba, found lurking in rivers, lakes and ponds, enters the body through the nose. It can cause primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection which is often fatal.

Prof Khan said: “With London getting very warm weather now, I think it is a serious concern here… If this water is not clean, it can cause serious risks.”

So swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds presents a risk of contracting infection spread by naegleria fowleri and amoeba. Prof Khan said he saw dormant forms of the brain-eating amoeba in UK water treatment sites in London and Nottingham between 2002 and 2008, while working on a public health project. This was before the water was treated and no traces of the parasite were found afterwards.

Climate change is causing summers to become progressively warmer. The Met Office said 2023 was the second warmest year on record as the temperature exceeded 32.5C in September.

Speaking to MailOnline, Prof Khan said he wants naegleria to be routinely tested for, something which doesn’t happen at present in the UK. UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), though, says the parasite is “very rare”.

Warmer temperatures provide a more favourable environment for the amoeba to transform into an “infective form”, where it develops a biological “hook” to attach to cells lining the nose.

Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis can be confused with meningitis in the rare instance that an infection does occur. One of the first signs is a headache, which patients and health professionals alike would dismiss as a minor ailment. As the illness progresses, it can cause a stiff neck and headache – similar to symptoms caused by bacterial meningitis, according to Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention in the US.

Full list of symptoms

In its early stages, symptoms may be similar to those caused by bacterial meningitis. First symptoms usually start with five days after infection, but they can start within one to 12 days.

They may include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Later symptoms can include:

  • A stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Lack of attention to people and surroundings
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma

After symptoms start, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days, the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention says.

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