A 69-year-old Seattle woman was facing a deadly brain-eating amoeba which has now been linked to her improper use of a neti pot. Dr. Charles Cobbs, a neurosurgeon at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center, carried out a brain surgery like no other in order to save the woman's life. "It's something I've actually never seen before ... pathologists couldn't really determine what it was because the tissue had been pretty much destroyed."
Cobbs first operated on the woman last January after he originally diagnosed her with having a brain tumor, but after opening her up, he saw that the damage was so severe he even sent a portion of her brain to a lab for testing. When the results came back, Cobbs discovered the horrifying truth, a brain-eating amoeba had literally been eating her alive brain first.
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Now that the real culprit of the patient's symptoms has been identified, Cobbs says he believes it was due to the improper use of a neti pot. The neti pot is shaped like a teapot with a large spout to help rinse out the nasal cavity. Cobbs says she used tap water instead of boiling the water first or using purified water.
The rare infection is called Balamuthia mandrillaris which is a free-living amoeba found in soil and fresh water. It usually is harmless to humans but this was not the case for the patient in Seattle. Cobbs reported the case to a recent edition of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. The report describes the Balamuthia mandrillaris as being discovered in 1986 in an autopsy of the brain of a mandrill monkey.
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The report also claims that there have only been about 200 cases of human infection recorded worldwide with at least 70 of those cases in the U.S. The fatality rate for Balamuthia mandrillaris infection is near 100 percent.
"If you directly ... injected (it) into your nasal passageways, if there's enough of it, it could, you know, set up an infection," Cobbs explained. "I suspect it was in her nasal passages and skin in the nose, and, after a while, enough of it was around that it got into the bloodstream and probably went to the brain."
The paper describes the infection's first symptom as being a lesion on the woman's nose which doctors treated for about a year thinking it was a common skin condition known as rosacea. Cobbs added that the rarity of the amoeba made it very difficult to diagnose.
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Eventually, the patient had a stroke which then prompted doctors to perform a CT scan but even the new diagnosis of a brain tumor was wrong. The amoeba infection wasn't discovered until she underwent the surgery and her brain was literally being eaten away. Sadly, the woman died within a month of the true diagnosis.
Cobbs tells those who use a nasal rinse to wash their containers properly. "I suspect it was probably a container that had been sitting around ... an amoeba could set up shop in there and then the tap water had been maybe sitting around and maybe it just grew in that," he said. Neti pots can be a good way for those with flu symptoms or sinus issues to get relief but only if used properly and with clean water.
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