Doctors say amoebas in tap water turned woman's brain into 'bloody mush'

Grant Boone
December 8, 2018

"When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush", Dr. Charles Cobbs told the local paper.

The 69-year-old Seattle resident died in February after undergoing brain surgery at Swedish Medical Center.

Over the next several days, additional scans revealed that whatever was happening in her brain was getting worse.

The woman, doctors realized, had been infected with Balamuthia mandrillaris, a type of amoeba that can infect the brain and cause massive damage.

But when Cobbs operated to remove the mass, "it was just dead brain tissue", making it hard to determine what it actually was. He removed it and sent a sample to a pathologist at Johns Hopkins for a second opinion. But the woman's condition was deteriorating. "We didn't have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue we could see it was the amoeba", Cobbs added.

Just two months ago, a 29-year-old man from New Jersey died from brain-eating amoebas.

Cobbs said he suspects that the woman got infected by using the neti pot with unsterilized water; indeed, rinsing the sinuses with unsterilized water has been linked in the past to another deadly brain-eating amoeba infection called Naegleria fowleri The CDC notes, however, that "little is known at this time about how a person becomes infected" with the amoeba.

Man coughs up blood clot in shape of a lung
The man reportedly had a medical history that included heart failure; he had previously been fitted for a pacemaker. But because these machines can also increase the risk of blood clots, he was prescribed a blood-thinner medication.

"There have been 34 reported infections in the U.S.in the 10 years from 2008 to 2017, despite millions of recreational water exposures each year", according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A person can not get infected from swallowing water contaminated with it, and it can not pass from person to person. In healthy people with good immune systems, an infection is extremely rare. Since then, more than 200 cases have been diagnosed worldwide, with at least 70 cases in the USA, the CDC says.

The doctor and his colleagues believe the woman may have used a common plastic device called a neti pot, which lets users irrigate their sinuses by flushing water through it.

Balamuthia mandrillaris: As Gizmodo reported, there have only ever been 200 reported cases of B. mandrillaris globally.

Previous year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also issued a warning that improper use of Neti pots and other nasal irrigation systems could lead to unsafe infections, including one with a brain-eating amoeba.

The woman had gone to the doctor for a chronic sinus infection and was instructed to use a saline irrigation to clear out her sinuses, but while sterile water or saline is recommended, she used water filtered by a Brita Water Purifier, according to a case study in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

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