And now, a few words about brain-eating amoebas

This summer, Naegleria fowleri is the new great white shark. A freshwater-dwelling amoeba that can invade the human nervous system and, on rare occasions, kill, N. fowleri (or, as they are more commonly known, "brain-eating amoebas") have apparently succeeded in making everybody a little more afraid to get in the water.

But is the fear justified?

Most of you can probably guess that the answer is, "No." But why, specifically? Julia Diebol at the Risk Science Blog does a nice job of clearly laying out why these amoeba are so attention-grabbing, and why they shouldn't keep you up at night.

Shorter version: Just being in amoeba-infested waters doesn't mean you'll get one up your nose. Or, at least, it doesn't mean that you'll die. The amoebas have only killed 129 Americans since 1937. That's more than I'd previously thought, but not remotely enough to justify a panic. Especially given that the risk of infection doesn't seem to be increasing.

Granted, there's a lot we don't know about N. fowleri. Key question: Why can hundreds of people swim safely in lake water that leads to amoeba infestation and death for one person? Nobody knows yet what factors make some people susceptible and others, apparently, not. But we do know this: On your list of things to worry about, brain-eating amoebas should be near the bottom.


  1. Dont tell that to Fox. 

    They’ve already got interviews with alleged experts (legends in their own minds) who are going to hype it up until they can blame Obama for inaction by the CDC on fighting this deadly plague.

    Murdoch may be in deep caca over TheNewsOfTheWorld, but he’s left orders to keep his name out of the news and to sling mud at Obama instead, even if his minions have to lie.

    1. “even if his minions have to lie.”  That doesn’t seem to be too different from stating as fact tales you’ve imagined about what Murdoch has told people he works with.  

    2. even if his minions have to lie”?!? His minions would self-combust if they were forced to tell the truth, before or after the scandal.

      I was laughing yesterday because my freebie 3rd-pty Twitter client was ad-pimping a story about the Murdoch scandal–from the Wall Street Journal. Yeahhhhhh. If I want that sort of accuracy, I’ll read Decision Points instead of Jane Mayer about U.S. torture.

  2. On your list of things to worry about, brain-eating amoebas should be near the bottom.

    Geez, way to take all the fun out on my risky dip in the local lake!

    1. Those are the same amoeba—N. fowleri—at different stages of its life cycle. And yes, N. fowleri is truly wily, indeed. 

  3. This scene from Star Trek II, were Khan puts a brain worm in Chekhov’s… brain, is one of the things that stuck with me most from my childhood. I remember seeing it on TV or something when I was really young, and never forgot it.

  4. Since the amoebae “eat brains”, I’m genuinely surprised that no one has latched onto the moniker Zombiemoeba or Zomoeba. Or have I missed that somehow?

    @ Gyrofrog – The photo shows different stages of the amoeba. I didn’t know single-celled organisms did that. Kooky, huh?

  5. This is a non-isssue.  The critter can be totally thwarted by a 20-cent nose clip.

    What Rupert Murdoc has to do with this I’ll be ****ed if I can see. You people are capable of haring off on some truly spectacular logic-free tangents.

  6. re: “But is the fear justified?”

    Like most things we are afraid of – and that the media hypes – the answer is no.

  7. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! …and brain eating zombie amoeba… but we can just brush that under the carpet and blame the minorities again.

  8. @asdaasdf:disqus 

    Exposure to Fox News prior to contact with amoeba is responsible for enabling brain-eating parasite, causing zombification of about 30% of the electorate.  
     Constant low level exposure to Republican ideas in “red states” also has been reported to produce a similar effect in reducing the brain’s defenses to the brain-eating parasites. 

  9. “On your list of things to worry about, brain-eating amoebas should be near the bottom”

    So, where on the list do these bottom eating amoebas come? I can do without my brain, I hardly ever really use it, but I like to use my bottom to interface with my chair.

  10. I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

    There you go, no need to worry, fixed it for you.  Until Shai-Hulud arrives, of course.

  11. Sounds like the least harmful kind of thing you could encounter whilst swimming.

    Come over here to AU for a week and try to go swimming… you’ll have a legitimate reason to be afraid!

    1. No shit. I mean, what *doesn’t* envenom, poison, eat, pierce, exsanguinate, or otherwise maim and/or kill you in your native wildlife?

      Other than the sheep. And even then…

    2. I worked on an ad campaign for Australia’s Tourist Board. They rejected my tagline:

      “Australia. If we didn’t kill ya, we made ya stronger. Or put you in a venom induced coma.”

  12. I wrote about this critter back in the 1980s for Science Digest. The suggestion back then was a simple one: just blow your nose when you get out of the water. 

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