Killer amoeba

Published October 10, 2012

A RARE, mysterious amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri has been linked to at least 10 deaths in Karachi since May. It is a waterborne organism found in swimming pools and freshwater bodies and can infect the nervous system with deadly results. With often deceptive initial symptoms, such as headache and fever, a proper diagnosis is difficult to make. The concern generated by the lethal amoeba and presumably the fact that of the 10 victims only one had visited a swimming pool, led to a meeting of health officials and other stakeholders on Monday. Here, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board was urged to increase the chlorine content of the city’s water to neutralise the deadly organism. At the meeting it was revealed that 22 per cent of water samples were found to be either non-chlorinated or containing insufficient amounts of chlorine — hence the need to closely monitor the quality of Karachi’s water and ensure adequate levels of chlorination.

Nevertheless, alarming as the situation is, it is important that there is no fear-mongering that could lead to unnecessary panic. What would be more helpful is public information regarding preventive measures — such as the recommendation that people use purified water for ablution as the amoeba is at its deadliest when it enters the body through the nasal passages. Considering that the amoeba is rare, medical professionals should not be left out of the loop, and hospitals and clinics would do well to ensure that they are fully aware of the diagnostic procedures. Meanwhile, timely reporting to the health authorities of deaths or infections linked to the amoeba by public and private hospitals is essential for proper management. Nearly all the fatalities have been reported from private hospitals. This is a clear indication that public health facilities are underreporting the number of cases they handle.

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