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Sources of Infection & Risk Factors

Naegleria fowleri is a free-living ameba that causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a disease of the central nervous system 1, 2. PAM is a rare disease* that is almost always fatal. In the United States**, there have been 138 PAM infections from 1962 through 2015 with only three survivors. These infections have primarily occurred in 15 southern-tier states, with more than half of all infections occurring in Texas and Florida. PAM also disproportionately affects males and children. The reason for this distribution pattern is unclear but may reflect the types of water activities (such as diving or watersports) that might be more common among young boys 3.

Where Naegleria fowleri is Found

Naegleria fowleri is a heat-loving (thermophilic) ameba found around the world 1, 2. Naegleria fowleri grows best at higher temperatures up to 115°F (46°C; see Pathogen and Environment page) and can survive for short periods at higher temperatures 4, 5. Naegleria fowleri is naturally found in warm freshwater environments such as lakes and rivers 6-10, naturally hot (geothermal) water such as hot springs 11, warm water discharge from industrial or power plants 12, 13, geothermal well water 14, 15, poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools 3, water heaters 16, and soil 6, where it lives by feeding on bacteria and other microbes in the environment. Sampling of lakes in the southern tier of the U.S. indicates that Naegleria fowleri is commonly present in many southern tier lakes in the U.S. during the summer 6-10 but infections have also recently occurred in northern states 17. Naegleria is not found in salt water, like the ocean.

Where PAM Infections Have Occurred

PAM infections have been reported from around the world 1, 2. Infections have primarily occurred in southern-tier states in the U.S. 3, but infections were documented in Minnesota in 2010 and 2012 17 and other northern states since that time. Over half of all reported infections have occurred in Florida and Texas. In the United States and the rest of the world, PAM is primarily spread via swimming in warm freshwater lakes and rivers (about 3 out of 4 U.S. infections from 1962-2015) 3. Other recreational water types like hot springs and canals have also been linked to PAM infections 3.

a colored map of the United States showing states where cases of Naegleria fowleri have occurred. States with zero cases are in white, states with one case are in yellow, states with 2 to 4 cases are light orange, states with 5 to 9 cases are in darker orange, and states with 10 or more cases are in red.

Number of case reports of PAM by state of exposure, United States, 1962-2015.

Six infections in the U.S. have been associated with using water from drinking water systems to swim 14 or use a slip-n-slide 18, immerse the head in a bathtub 14,  mix solutions for nasal irrigation using a neti pot 16, or perform ritual nasal rinsing or ablution 19. PAM infections also occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in Australia 20, 21 that were linked to showering, swimming, or having other nasal exposure to contaminated drinking water. The infections were linked to piping drinking water overland, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers, that resulted in the water being heated and having low to zero disinfectant levels that resulted in the water and pipes becoming colonized by Naegleria fowleri. Several water systems in the states of Western Australia and South Australia continue to monitor regularly for Naegleria fowleri colonization in drinking water distribution systems 22. Infections due to contaminated water being used for religious practices 19, 23 have also been reported.

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Number of PAM Infections

a green bar graph on a white background showing the number of case reports of PAM by year, United States, 1962-2012. N=123; year of exposure unknown for one case.

Number of case reports of PAM by year, United States, 1962-2015.

PAM is a rare* disease. From 1962-2015, 138 infections in the U.S. have been reported to CDC. Other infections have been diagnosed in stored autopsy samples dating back to 1937 24. The annual number of U.S. infections ranges from 0 to 8, with higher numbers appearing to occur in heat wave years when air and water temperatures are higher. It does not appear that the number of infections has increased since CDC established its Free-living Ameba (FLA) Laboratory and PAM registry in 1978.

How PAM is Spread or Transmitted

Humans become infected when water containing Naegleria fowleri enters the nose, usually while swimming. People do not get infected by drinking contaminated water. The ameba migrates to the brain along the olfactory nerve, through a bony plate in the skull called the cribriform plate, where it reaches the brain and begins to destroy the brain tissue 1, 2. Naegleria fowleri has not been shown to spread via water vapor or aerosol droplets (such as shower mist or vapor generated from a humidifier). The ameba has never been shown to have spread from one person to another.

You cannot get infected from drinking water contaminated with Naegleria. You can only be infected when contaminated water goes up into your nose.

Transplantation of organs from donors infected by Naegleria fowleri has been recorded, although none of the organ recipients became infected 25-27. However, the  occurrence of Naegleria fowleri outside the brain has been observed; Naegleria fowleri has been documented in tissue sections of lung, kidney, heart, spleen, and thyroid from two deceased PAM cases 28. As a result, although the risk of transmission of Naegleria fowleri by donor organs is still unknown, it is unlikely to be zero so the risks of transplantation with an organ possibly harboring Naegleria fowleri should be carefully weighed for each individual organ recipient against the potentially greater risk of delaying transplantation while waiting for another suitable organ. This warrants continued study of the benefits and risks of transplanting organs or tissues from people infected by Naegleria fowleri.

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Who Gets Infected

purple bar graph showing cases by gender and age group in years from 1962-2012. N=118; one missing age on case-report. Lighter purple indicates females, darker purple indicates males.

Number of case-reports of PAM by age group and gender, United States, 1962-2015.

PAM infections have been reported from around the world 1, 2. From 1962 through 2015, 138 infections have been documented in the U.S. Infections have occurred in all age groups, but 114 cases (83%) have occurred in children (median age of 12 years; range 8 months to 66 years). Over three-quarters (>75%) of infections have been in males. Infected people were often reported to have participated in water-related activities such as swimming underwater, diving, and head dunking that could have caused water to go up the nose 3.

Naegleria fowleri has also been documented to infect animals such as cattle 29 and a South American tapir 30. Experimental infection can be induced in other species including mice, which are used as the model system for studying Naegleria fowleri infections resulting from swimming 31.

When Infections Occur

Multi-colored graph showing the number of case-reports of primary amebic meningoencephalitis, by month of illness onset and probable water exposure in the United States, from 1962-2012. Purple indicates lakes, ponds, reservoirs; light purple indicates canals, ditches, and puddles; rust-red indicates a river or stream; yellow indicates geothermally heated water; green indicates tap water, black indicates swimming pools, and gray indicates unknown or multiple locations.

Number of case reports of PAM by month of illness onset and probable water exposure, United States, 1962-2015.

Infections linked to freshwater swimming mostly occur during the heat of summer in July and August in the northern hemisphere when water temperatures peak and water levels are low 3. Infections can increase during heat wave years as water temperatures increase.

Risk of Infection

No data exist to accurately estimate the true risk of PAM. Hundreds of millions of visits to swimming venues occur each year in the U.S. 32 that result in 0-8 infections per year. The extremely low occurrence of PAM makes epidemiologic study difficult. It is unknown why certain persons become infected with the amebae while millions of others exposed to warm recreational fresh waters, including those who were swimming with people who became infected, do not. Attempts have been made to determine what concentration of Naegleria fowleri in the environment poses an unacceptable risk 33. However, no method currently exists that accurately and reproducibly measures the numbers of amebae in the water. This makes it unclear how a standard might be set to protect human health and how public health officials would measure and enforce such a standard.

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  2. Visvesvara GS. Free-living amebae as opportunistic agents of human disease. [PDF - 13 pages] J Neuroparasitol. 2010;1.
  3. Yoder JS, Eddy BA, Visvesvara GS, Capewell L, Beach MJ. The epidemiology of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis in the USA, 1962-2008. Epidemiol Infect. 2010;138:968-75.
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  12. Sykora JK, Keleti G, Martinez AJ. Occurrence and pathogenicity of Naegleria fowleri in artificially heated waters. Appl and Envion Microbiol. 1983;45:974-9.
  13. Stevens AR, Tyndall RL, Coutant CC, Willaert E. Isolation of the etiological agent of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis from artificially heated waters. Appl Environ Microbiol. 1977;34(6):701-5.
  14. 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.
  15. Blair B, Sarkar P, Bright KR, Marciano-Cabral F, Gerba CP. Naegleria fowleri in well water. Emerg Infect Dis. 2008;14:1499-501.
  16. Yoder JS, Straif-Bourgeois S, Roy SL, Moore TA, Visvesvara GS, Ratard RC, Hill V, Wilson JD, Linscott AJ, Crager R, Kozak NA, Sriram R, Narayanan J, Mull B, Kahler AM, Schneeberger C, da Silva AJ, Beach MJ. Deaths from Naegleria fowleri associated with sinus irrigation with tap water: a review of the changing epidemiology of primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Clin Infect Dis. 2012;1-7.
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  18. Cope JR, Ratard RC, Hill VR, Sokol T, Causey JJ, Yoder JS, Mirani G, Mull B, Mukerjee KA, Narayanan J, Doucet M, Qvarstrom Y, Poole CN, Akingbola OA, Ritter JM, Xiong Z, da Silva A, Roellig D, Van Dyke R, Stern H, Xiao L, Beach MJ. The first association of a primary amebic meningoencephalitis death with culturable Naegleria fowleri in tap water from a U.S. treated public drinking water system. Clin Infect Dis. 2015;doi:10.1093/cid/civ017.
  19. CDC. Primary amebic meningoencephalitis associated with ritual nasal rinsing — St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, 2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2013;62(45):903.
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  24. Gustavo dos Santos Neto. Fatal primary amebic meningoencephalitis. A retrospective study in Richmond, Virginia. Am J Clin Pathol. 1970;54:737-42.
  25. Kramer MH, Lerner CJ, Visvesvara GS. Kidney and liver transplants from a donor infected with Naegleria fowleri. J Clin Microbiol. 1997;35:1032-3.
  26. Bennett WM, Nespral JF, Rosson MW, McEvoy KM. Use of organs for transplantation from a donor with primary meningoencephalitis due to Naegleria fowleri. Am J Transplant. 2008;8:1334-5.
  27. Tuppeny M. Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis with subsequent organ procurement: a case study. J Neurosci Nurs. 2011;43:274-9.
  28. Roy SL, Metzger R, Chen JG, Laham FR, Martin M, Kipper SW, Smith LE, Lyon GM 3rd, Haffner J, Ross JE, Rye AK, Johnson W, Bodager D, Friedman M, Walsh DJ, Collins C, Inman B, Davis BJ, Robinson T, Paddock C, Zaki SR, Kuehnert M, DaSilva A, Qvarnstrom Y, Sriram R, Visvesvara GS. Risk for transmission of Naegleria fowleri from solid organ transplantation. Am J Transplant. 2014;14(1):163-71.
  29. Visvesvara GS, De Jonckheere JF, Sriram R, Daft B. Isolation and molecular typing of Naegleria fowleri from the brain of a cow that died of primary amebic meningoencephalitis. J Clin Microbiol. 2005;43:4203-4.
  30. Lozano-Alarcón F, Bradley GA, Houser BS, Visvesvara GS. Primary amebic meningoencephalitis due to Naegleria fowleri in a South American tapir. Vet Pathol. 1997;34:239-43.
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  32. US Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Arts, Recreation, and Travel: Participation in Selected Sports Activities 2009. [PDF - 2 pages]
  33. Cabanes PA, Wallet F, Pringuez E, Pernin P. Assessing the risk of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis from swimming in the presence of environmental Naegleria fowleri. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2001;67:2927-31.

*Rare Disease
There is no universal definition of a “rare disease” but the U.S. Rare Disease Act of 2002 defined a rare disease as affecting less than 200,000 people in the U.S. and this definition has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health, Office of Rare Diseases.

**Including U.S. states, territories, and commonwealths.

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