Sunday, September 30, 2007

Don't breathe the water

An AP story about a brain eating amoeba is making the rounds. Why? because there's been a recent spike in the number of cases reported. Infection is around ninety-seven percent fatal--only three survivors ever reported. It crawls up your nose and follows the olfactory nerve to your brain causing headaches and hallucinations and finally death.

Sounds pretty scary. And the spike this year was enormous. In 2007 Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis was reported to have caused about two-hundred percent more deaths than the yearly average from 1995 to 2004. The amoeba-- Naegleria fowleri --thrives in warm stagnant water. So global warming is expected to make it worse.

I've borrowed some of the language and some of the statistical rhetoric from all the stories I've seen. Brain-eating is a favorite in these stories. It's up there with flesh-eating in its impact. Maybe better. It's a lot better than infection. It sounds a lot scarier and more deliberate on the part of those ravenous brain eating mini-monsters.

And the statistics: In the story I linked to above Chris Kahn writes "The spike in cases has health officials concerned." Infections are exceedingly rare. So a spike is a complicated phenomenon. From 1995 to 2004 there were 23 reported cases. That's just over 2 per year. 2007 saw 6 deaths. About four more than the average. But is that a spike? Snooping around the CDC website I found that there were 6 cases in 2002 as well. Two each in Texas Arizona and Florida.

I've not been able to find the numbers for year to year cases tho I'm quite sure that they would make 2007's "spike" look less alarming.

But then how would the story make it into all the newspapers and TV newscasts?



  1. Ah the joys of sensationalism. And people wonder about so many of us out in the world being jaded. Six people die and we're being warned about a plague of brain-munching micro-zombies.

    I grew up in Florida, we were all taught not to go swimming in stagnant water. (It's not terribly smart in cooler climates either.) So I must be the heartless monster who chalks it up to Darwinism and moves on. Six people, out of six billion... it's sad, but there are a LOT more dangerous things for us to spend resources addressing.

  2. My father told me about this. He works in water and steam distribution at Purdue and he had to take a class on it. From my understanding, the worry is that water will sometimes sit in drinking fountains or just fountains in general and become stagnant and get this amoeba. Oddly enough, if people just drink it, then they're probably fine. But if they happen to breathe in the mist from these fountains, it could kill them.

    I'm sure though that it is a journalistic dream come true to write about and inflate the chances of such a thing happening.

  3. This country lurches from one terror to another, and generally they're all as substantial as this one: more people dying of brain-eating amoebas! Sharks eating more people now than before! Most people never get as far as the actual numbers - it's kind of like riding a roller coaster or going to a horror movie. If it didn't distract us from actual threats it might even be harmless.


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