South Korea reports first death by rare brain-eating amoeba

The infected patient died ten days after symptoms occurred.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Naegleria fowleri parasites.
Naegleria fowleri parasites.

CDC 

South Korea has reported its first case of brain-eating Naegleria fowleri infection, according to a report by The Korean Times published on Monday. Last month, the disease was making its way across the U.S., and now, it seems to have spread to other nations.

Death after ten days of symptoms

In South Korea, the infection caused the death of a man in his 50s who passed away ten days after first displaying symptoms. He is suspected of being exposed to the amoeba in Thailand.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) confirmed on Monday that the patient was indeed infected with Naegleria fowleri.

Previous to his death, he showed symptoms of meningitis, such as headaches, fever, vomiting, slurred speech, and stiffness of the neck. The symptoms began the evening of his arrival from Thailand.

He was transferred to an emergency room the next day, but there was little health professionals could do for the man who was already infected.

He was pronounced dead on December 21. Tests conducted following his death confirmed he was suffering from a Naegleria fowleri infection.

The KDCA did not share the exact route of transmission of this specific case but said that swimming in contaminated water or nasal rinsing with unsafe water are the leading causes of infection.

South Korea reports first death by rare brain-eating amoeba
Cerebrospinal fluid smear containing Naegleria fowleri.

How is the infection transmitted?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that Naegleria fowleri infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. 

“This typically happens when people go swimming, diving, or when they put their heads under fresh water, like in lakes and rivers. The amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain, where it destroys the brain tissue and causes a devastating infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). PAM is almost always fatal,” adds the organization.

Chances of the amoeba resting in bodies of water increase, especially during the warmer months of July, August, and September.

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“Naegleria fowleri is a heat-loving (thermophilic) organism, meaning it thrives in heat and likes warm water. It grows best at high temperatures up to 115°F (46°C) and can survive for short periods at even higher temperatures. Scientists have tested water temperatures from lakes and rivers linked to some PAM cases, and the temperatures have typically been higher than 80°F. However, it is possible that the amoeba may live in water with a temperature below 80°F,” noted the CDC.

Once the amoeba has lodged itself into a person’s brain, symptoms can start up to 12 days after, and death usually occurs within about five days. Currently, there is no known effective treatment, and a diagnosis almost always comes too late.

Only four of the 154 cases reported between 1962 and 2021 in the U.S. survived the infection. Luckily, it is extremely rare, with only about 430 cases having ever been documented globally.