Brain-eating amoeba not airborne, says health official

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An official from the Health Ministry has rejected speculation that Vietnam's second victim of a rare brain-eating amoeba contracted the organism via the air.

A report on VnExpress Friday quoted Dr. Luong Truong Son, deputy chief of the National Institute of Malariology Parasitology and Entomology, as saying that the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri,which causes a deadly brain inflammation and nervous system disease known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, "surely" only lives in warm freshwater.

It also depends on water to move like jellyfish, Son said. "Naegleria fowleri can't live in the air. It can't live in water with cool temperature or salty water, either."

Earlier Dr. Phan Van Hieu, director of the HCMC Center for Forensic Science, which reported the second case, raised suspicions that the boy could have contracted the amoeba from the air, because he did not come in contact with any body of water before falling sick.

When the boy was hospitalized on August 12 his heart and breathing had stopped and his body had turned blue. The first victim, a 27-year-old man, had fallen sick soon after swimming in a lake in the central province of Phu Yen. He died later at the HCMC Hospital of Tropical Diseases.

In the meantime, speaking to Thanh Nien on Friday, Dr. Tran Phu Manh Sieu, director of the city's Preventive Health Center, said since there had been no studies of the brain-eating ameba in Vietnam, information about where it lived and how much of it was present in the country was not available.

However, he stressed that the first two cases have proved that the organism must have existed in Vietnam's water environment for a long time, and had probably caused several misinterpreted deaths before.

Naegleria fowleri survives best in water environments lakes, swamps, springs, ponds - with the ideal temperature of some 35 Celsius degrees, according to Sieu.

In Vietnam, hot springs, which are believed to be good for health, are ideal for the growth of the amoeba, because it usually grows during the summer when the temperature increases, he said.

The official, however, stressed it was rare that the amoeba entered the human body and caused the disease. He said the unicellular parasite is like any other organism and has contact with people every day.

"Only when people have very bad luck, does the amoeba enter their body and destroy their brain. The disease is not infectious and will not turn into an epidemic," Sieu said.

Statistics showed that between 1995 and 2004, the US recorded 23 deaths from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. In August this year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that two people died from the disease last year.

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Since the first case, Vietnamese health authorities have warned people to take precautions while swimming in lakes and ponds.

People have been advised to keep their head above water and use nose clips when swimming, and swab the nose with an antiseptic later, because the amoeba penetrates the nasal mucous membrane in order to enter the brain, where it causes the disease.

People should go to the hospital for checks-up if they have headaches, fever and stiffness in the nape of their necks within seven days of swimming, Sieu said.  

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