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, KTLA sister station KCPQ reported on Thursday.
Dr. Charles Cobbs said when he operated it was just dead brain tissue, and most likely the woman became infected by Balamuthia mandrillaris, an amoeba that kills the brain cells slowly over time.
Swedish Medical Center didn’t identify the patient who died just a month after being diagnosed.
“There were these amoebas all over the place just eating brain cells,” Cobbs told the Seattle Times. “We didn’t have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue, we could see it was the amoeba.”
The team at Swedish Medical Center believe the woman was using a device called a neti pot to irrigate her sinuses, which likely introduced the amoeba into her system.
"It’s extremely important to use sterile saline or sterile water," Cobbs said. "I think she was using (tap) water that had been through a water filter and had been doing that for about a year previously."
The amoeba is a single-cell organism that can cause fatal disease in humans and lives in warm soil and water.
“This is extremely rare. This amoeba was not even known 20 years ago hardly. There’s been about 200 cases worldwide," Cobbs said.
The Clinical Infectious Diseases Journal says 90 percent of patients that contracted Balamuthia have died. Although becoming infected is rare, Cobbs said 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,” Cobbs said.
Most cases of brain-eating amoebas have been found in places like California, Arizona and Texas but Cobbs said that over time, because of climate change, the amoeba could learn to survive in cooler areas like in Washington state.