Climate change could lead to a rise in brain-eating parasites
It has yet to be confirmed by the CDC, but the U.S. may have just seen the year’s fourth death from primary amebic meningoencephalitis, otherwise known as A FUCKING PARASITE EATS YOUR BRAIN.
Four deaths in eight months is pretty easy to shrug off, even when they involve a creepy disease with a 99 percent fatality rate — but in the previous 49 years, the U.S. had only 123 known cases (and 122 deaths). That’s an average of 2.5 deaths a year — and in last 10 years, it was more like 3.2. So, you know, maybe nothing at all is weird about averaging two cases a month in 2012. Or maybe climate change is making conditions more hospitable for this warm-water-loving parasite and we’re all gonna dieeeeeeeeee. Either seems plausible.
We do know for sure that Naegleria fowleri, the single-celled organism (it’s not really an amoeba) that causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis, loves it some warm water. You may remember N. fowleri from its brief but sensational appearance as “that brain-eating parasite that lives in your neti pot,” and it also enjoys water heaters, geothermal springs, warm wastewater from industrial plants, and overheated, poorly maintained pools. Those all sound terrible to stick your head in anyway, and you only get infected by N. fowleri when it swims up your nose, so this is potentially no big deal — except for the fact that we’re going to be seeing increasingly high water temperatures all around, thanks to climate change. A lot of the human race bathes, swims, and even performs religious rites in rivers, lakes, and oceans, and the difference between those and an unchlorinated hot tub is shrinking with every degree.
This isn’t the biggest recent year for amebic meningoencephalitis deaths — at this time in 2007, there had already been six. But back then, a CDC scientist was pretty clear that global warming was making the water much finer for N. fowleri:
“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”
So on the plus side, the chances that your brain will get eaten by a parasitic organism that crawled up your nose: vanishingly small! (Though, okay, possibly larger in recent years than at any previous point in your lifetime.) On the other hand, the chances that those micro-zombies are going to become more common as water temperatures increase: Somewhat higher! We recommend you buy a nose-clip, so that when your city is overcome with warm floodwater in the ecopocalypse you’ll be prepared.
Attack of the Brain-Eating Amoebas!, Mother Jones.