Extreme Heat Carries Brain-Eating Parasite Across US

Extreme Heat Carries Brain-Eating Parasite Across US

A deadly brain-eating, water-dwelling amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is becoming increasingly common and popping up in surprising new places. Historically, infection by the parasite has been limited to states in the Southern US, where fresh water is warm enough for the organism to thrive. And with only 31 cases reported between 2012 and 2021, incidents have been considered relatively rare. Still, the survival rate is concerningly low. According to the CDC, only four out of 151 people survived the infection between 1962 and 2020.

Rising temperatures and 2022’s brutally hot summer, which broke 300 all-time heat records, have allowed the parasite to spread to new habitats, like Minnesota, Iowa, and Arizona. In addition, warmer weather makes swimming (in potentially infected waters) more popular.

Kurzgesagt: The Most Horrible Parasite | Brain Eating Amoeba, May 3, 2022.

WKMG News 6 ClickOrlando: Survivor of brain-eating amoeba shares his story, August 4, 2022.

KENS 5: One person dies after being infected with brain-eating amoeba, August 8, 2022.

Why This Matters

Climate change has driven the spread of pathogens, particularly water-borne ones like the brain-eating amoeba. A recent study suggests that climate change will increase the likelihood of future pandemics caused by animal-to-human transmission. More frequent and extreme climate disasters are pressuring animals to migrate to new environments where they interact with other species for the first time, giving pathogens opportunities to mutate and jump species.

“Changes in temperature and precipitation shift the geographical ranges of animals -- including mosquitoes, ticks, birds and small mammals -- into the environs of humans. Storms and floods displace people from their lands and lead them closer to animals that spread disease,” writes the LA Times.

Nature, April 28, 2022.

MSNBC: Study | Climate Change Increasing Pandemic Risks By Forcing Animal Migrations, May 1, 2022.

Democracy Now!: We Created the Pandemicene | Ed Yong on How the Climate Crisis Could Spark the Next Pandemic, April 29, 2022.

How Climate Change Hits Human Health

Flooding is of particular concern, as rainwater, overflow, and wastewater spread pathogens into homes and buildings. After the recent catastrophic floods in Pakistan, water-borne diseases like cholera, diarrhea, skin allergies, malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery have contributed to the still-rising death toll, and 3.4 million children need "immediate, lifesaving support."

But drought can also cause pathogens to spread more quickly and widely. For example, infection rates of Valley Fever, a disease spread by inhaling fungal spores, have increased by 800% since 2000 because drier, hotter weather blows more spore-carrying dust into the air.

This year in the US, fatalities from heat were higher than the nation’s 10- and 30-year averages for weather-related deaths of all kinds. Extreme heat also affects sleep, with experts predicting that warming could result in up to 15 days of insufficient sleep a year by the end of the century.

Pollution, though not directly weather-related, killed nine million people in 2019. A recent study also found lung cancer in non-smokers can be linked to air pollution, which can also cause brain issues like dementia and asthma. 

Climate change wreaks havoc on human health, and because of this, healthcare workers are stepping up for a fight. In the name of public health, hundreds of health professionals and organizations worldwide have proposed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling for no new fossil fuel development.

BBC: Pakistan flood survivors battle rising tide of disease, September 22, 2022.

DW: Understanding the links between animals, humans and our environment | COVID-19 Special, April 16, 2022.

Cornell: Nature-based Solutions to Climate, Biodiversity, and Pandemic Threats, November 2, 2021.

LA Times: How pandemics are linked to climate change, May 21, 2020.