SEATTLE, Wash. - - When a 69-year old Seattle woman had a seizure earlier this year, doctors at Swedish Medical Center thought she may have had a brain tumor. However during surgery, they discovered it was something much more unusual.
"The pathologist was able to look at it under a microscope and see the characteristic, actually the amoeba, in the tissue,” said Dr. Charles Cobbs, Swedish Neuroscience Institute.
An amoeba is a single-cell organism that can cause fatal disease in humans, and they live in warm soil and water. Swedish Medical Center didn’t identify the patient who died just a month after being diagnosed. Dr. Cobb says she most likely became infected by the amoeba after treating a common sinus problem with tap water.
“We believe that she was using a device to irrigate her sinuses that some people use called a neti pot. It’s extremely important to use sterile saline or sterile water. I think she was using water that had been through a water filter and had been doing that for about a year previously,” Dr. Cobb said.
Dr. Cobbs says the woman carried an amoeba called Balamuthia mandrillaris that kills the brain cells slowly over time.
“This is extremely rare. This amoeba was not even known 20 years ago hardly. There’s been about 200 cases world-wide," Dr. Cobb said.
The Clinical Infectious Diseases Journal says 90% of patients that contracted Balamuthia have died. Although becoming infected is rare, Dr. Cobbs says people should always follow instructions and take precautions when using medical devices.
“If you do use a neti pot, for instance, you should be very aware that it has to be absolute sterile water or sterile saline,” said Dr. Cobb.
Most cases of brain eating amoebas have been found in places like California, Arizona and Texas but Dr. Cobbs did say that over time, because of climate change, the amoeba could learn to survive in cooler areas like here in Washington State.