Archive for February, 2017

Hello?

Hello, is this Horrific Animals of the World?

Yes, it is – now no longer sponsored by Radio Moscow!

The Kremlin sponsored you?

They did. Apparently, we were not doing such a good job of undermining the decadent West.

Why would they ever think you even could do that?

Well it turned out that the translator we hired wasn’t very good, and there were several linguistic and cultural misunderstandings that, together, led to a lack of consensus regarding the partnership.

I see.

We also lied, like, loads, about more or less everything. So anyway, what’s your problem?

I’m feeling sick, and tired, and just generally ill.

You should probably speak to a medical professional. Or at the very least, Google your symptoms online.

I tried that. According to the Internet, I have hypercancer, AIDs, Ebola and bubonic plague, and hysterical pregnancy, which is strange because I’m a male. But the weird thing is, I only started feeling ill three days after I went for a swim.

woman-typing-on-a-computer-keyboard

“It’s either a cough, or 90% of us will be dead within a week”

Well, you went and did exercise. No wonder you feel awful. Frankly, you only have yourself to blame for this. To be honest, it is probably just the fact that your flabby, weak, obese distortion  of a body is unused to even the slightest bit of exertion, due to a lifetime of overindulgence and laziness.

Thanks….I guess.

Or you could be infected with a brain eating amoeba.

I’m not flabby, I…wait, what? What on Earth is a brain eating amoeba?

An amoeba which eats brains.

69932-ngsversion-1422284393504-adapt-590-1

It can actually look like this, ‘this’ being ‘the face that hovers over you in that recurring nightmare’. (image via National Geographic). 

I had figured that out by myself.

It causes a disease caked Naegleria, or to give it its full name, Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAME) .  There were 37 known infections in the USA between 2006 and 2015, and under 200 throughout the history of the USA as of 2016. The initial symptoms are very similar to those you describe – headache, nausea, fever and vomiting. Later on, as the disease progresses, you may get a stiff neck, confusion, loss of concentration, loss of balance, trembling in your limbs, hallucinations, seizures, an urge to avoid bright lights and various other symptoms consistent with an ever increasing number of brain eating amoeba in your brain. Finally, as the damage to your brain becomes increasingly extensive, the victim enters a coma and then dies. Even with aggressive and prompt medical treatment, the fatality rate hovers around 95%.

How could I get this? I only went swimming!

Well, the Brain Eating Amoeba – or to give it its Latin name Naegleria fowleri – is found in warm waters, and, unlike most amoeba, can replicate happily at temperatures of up to 45 degrees centigrade, although it can’t grow in saltwater. Normally, it feeds on bacteria and other organic debris found in the lakes. Like a lot of amoeba, it can have multiple ‘forms’ – the Flagellate, Trophozoite and Cyst states. Cysts are formed when environmental conditions are tough – for example, when it is too hot, too cold, or there are too many harmful chemicals in the water, and basically allows the amoeba to ‘hibernate’ until conditions are better. The Flagellate stage has two flagella and can move around; but doesn’t feed or divide. (Presumably, this allows the organism to move to potentially more food-rich areas – Ed.) Finally, the Trophozoite stage is the feeding and reproducing stage. Both the Trophozoite and Flagellate stages can infect humans, although the Flagellates transform into Trophozoites once inside a person.

naegleria_fowleri_lifecycle_stages

The three stages – (left to right) Cyst, Trophozoites and Flagellates

The problem comes when infected water is taken up the nose – for example, by diving, swimming underwater, or using a nasal spray – although you can’t get it by drinking the water, nor from another infected person. Once it is in the nose, it migrates up the olfactory nerve, and into the olfactory bulbs of the brain.

Wait a sec…so the brain eating amoeba just happens to migrate to the one area of the body where you least want a brain eating amoeba?

Unfortunately, yes. If the amoeba just happened to start feeding on whatever cells were available, infected people would show signs of nasal damage – such as pain, nose bleeds, etc. The fact we don’t see this suggests that these cells are (more or less) untouched. Instead, the amoeba migrates through the sieve like ‘cribriform plate’ bone, and into the brain. This is likely because its ‘attracted’ to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which obviously is found at high levels in the brain.

Once there, it starts feeding on the brain cells by using a sucker like structure called an amoebostome to, basically, suck out the contents of various types of nerve cells, sometimes leaving a cytoskeleton (cell support structure) behind, as well as simply engulfing blood cells. This obviously causes massive tissue damage. Interestingly, though,  it seems a lot of the damage might be due to your body’s own inflammation response, trying to destroy the amoeba. Indeed, this study suggested that the inflammation response is the major cause of damage.

Bloody immune system…

You sound stressed.

Of course I’m stressed! There’s a brain eating amoeba in my brain! That’s the worst place to have a brain eating amoeba!

If you called it by its scientific name, Naegleria fowleri, you might feel a bit calmer about this whole thing. Try saying ‘Naegleria fowleri’ rather than ‘brain eating amoeba’.

That doesn’t help. Not even a little bit.

Well, I’m sorry we can’t help more.

You haven’t helped at all.

In fairness, we are called Horrific Animals of the World, and, technically speaking, Naegleria fowleri is not an animal. It is a member of the supergroup Excavata, which are all one celled eukaryotes. Eukaryotes, as I’m sure you know, consist of the plants, fungi, and animals, as well as other unicellular organisms, which used to be lumped together in the Kingdom Protozoa, until scientists realised that Protozoa wasn’t so much a group as a ‘place where you chucked all the eukaryotes that were not animals, plants or fungi’. In summary, your brain eating amoeba is not, actually, a problem of Horrific Animals of the World.

You spent quite a lot of time justifying why this isn’t your problem.

We’ve had lots of practice at justifying things.

auction-gavel-hpmtks-clipart

Such as taking money from a foreign power to undermine your country, completely failing to undermine your country, and forgetting Mum’s birthday. 

So what can I do to avoid this?

Well, if you’ve already got it, your best bet is to get swift medical treatment as soon as you can. But infection with this amoeba is stunningly rare; far more people will down whilst swimming than will come down with PAME. And it can’t survive in adequately chlorinated waters. Although, in a rather horrible twist of fate, it appears that human activities might increase levels of PAME. Firstly, ‘thermal pollution’ – dumping of warm (if clean) water into rivers and lakes potentially could kill off competitors of N. fowleri, whilst the amoeba can cope with the increased temperatures. With its competitors gone, its numbers could increase. Equally, global warming could mean, again, that water temperatures increase, extending the range of the amoeba.

So I guess the real moral of this story is…actually, there isn’t one. Sometimes Nature is just awful.