Diagnosis & Detection
- Clinicians: For 24/7 diagnostic assistance, specimen collection guidance, shipping instructions, and treatment recommendations, please contact the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100. More detailed guidance is under Resources for Public Health & Medical Professionals.
Primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) is a serious infection and inflammation of the brain caused by Naegleria fowleri 1, 2. The disease is diagnosed using specific laboratory tests available in only a few laboratories in the United States. Because of the rarity of the infection and difficulty in initial detection, about 75% of diagnoses are made after the death of the patient.
PAM and Naegleria fowleri infection can be diagnosed in the laboratory by detecting 3:
- Naegleria fowleri organisms in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), biopsy, or tissue specimens, or
- Naegleria fowleri nucleic acid in CSF, biopsy, or tissue specimens, or
- Naegleria fowleri antigen in CSF, biopsy, or tissue specimens.
Naegleria fowleri test methods
Direct visualization 4, 5: The motile amebae can often be seen moving rapidly under a microscope when looking at a fresh sample of CSF. The amebae can also be stained with a variety of stains, such as Giemsa-Wright or a modified trichrome stain, for identification.
Immunohistochemistry (IHC) 4, 5: A specific antibody to Naegleria fowleri can be used in conjunction with another antibody that deposits a chemical or glows under specific types of light (Indirect fluorescent antibody [IFA]) to directly stain the amebae in tissue.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) 6, 7, 8: Specific molecular tools can amplify DNA from the amebae in CSF or tissue to specifically identify if the amebae are present. Looking at strains or subtypes of Naegleria fowleri can be done, but little is known about the natural populations in the environment, which makes it difficult to interpret what the findings mean.
Ameba culture 9: The sample is added to a growth plate covered in bacteria that can serve as a food source for Naegleria fowleri. Incubating at higher temperatures selects for Naegleria fowleri growth, which can be seen as tracks made by the ameba as it moves across the plate eating the bacteria. Growing Naegleria fowleri in mammalian cell culture and looking for toxic cell effects is also possible.
Environmental Detection: Water samples can be collected, concentrated, and put into culture to grow and select for Naegleria fowleri. Samples can be tested using the serologic or molecular methods described above.
- Marciano-Cabral F, Cabral G. The immune response to Naegleria fowleri amebae and pathogenesis of infection. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2007;51:243-59.
- Visvesvara GS. Free-living amebae as opportunistic agents of human disease. [PDF - 13 pages] J Neuroparasitol. 2010;1.
- Council for State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE). Case Definitions for Non-notifiable Infections Caused by Free-living Amebae (Naegleria fowleri, Balamuthia mandrillaris, and Acanthamoeba spp.) [PDF - 10 pages]. Infectious Disease Committee. 2012.
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- Marciano-Cabral F, MacLean R, Mensah A, LaPat-Polasko L. Identification of Naegleria fowleri in domestic water sources by nested PCR. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2003;69:5864-9.
- Visvesvara GS. Parasite Culture: Acanthamoeba and Naegleria spp. In: Garcia LS, editor. Clinical Microbiology Procedures Handbook. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: ASM Press; 2010.