KARACHI: Three people have died and a fourth case of a "brain-eating amoeba" infection has been reported this year in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, officials said on Friday, hoping for the survival of the young man who has been hospitalized for almost a week.
The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is found in freshwater habitats — lakes, ponds, rivers, hot springs — and poorly managed swimming pools and pipes connected to tap water. The microorganism can enter the human body through the nose and cause a sudden infection of the brain called naegleriasis. In most cases, the infection is fatal.
It is a relatively new problem in Pakistan, where the first case was recorded in Karachi, Sindh province in 2008. The infection has since killed at least 103 people in the city, including 47 in the past six years, according to data obtained from Sindh health department’s Naegleria monitoring and inspection team.
The latest case of the infection was reported nearly a week ago in a young man, who continues to fight for his life at a Karachi hospital.
“A man died of Naegleria this week, taking the number of deaths from the disease to three this year,” Dr Muhammad Juman Bahoto, director-general of the Sindh health department, told Arab News.
“Another patient, a very young man, is under treatment for nearly a week and if he survives, it will be a breakthrough in the treatment of this fatal disease. This will be the first [case of] survival.”
Dr Shakeel Ahmed, a member of the Naegleria monitoring and inspection team, said the patient, who died this week, was a 38-year-old resident of the South district and he had been admitted to the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH).
An AKUH spokesperson denied a request for comment, saying the hospital did not provide such details to ensure privacy of patients.
Dr Bahoto said all four patients had no history of going to swimming pools and they might have contracted the infection from water in their household storage tanks.
Five of the seven Naeglaria cases in 2021 were also caused by water contamination in the city’s distribution pumps or household tanks, according to Dr Ahmed.
A Sindh health department study conducted in 50 union councils of Karachi in June 2021 said 95 percent of the samples were found with water completely unfit for human consumption.
Dr Ahmed, however, said the health department had held meetings with water board officials for chlorination to prevent all water-borne diseases.
Common symptoms of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, the brain infection caused by the amoeba, include extreme headache, changes in taste, high fever, sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting.
The symptoms occur within 24 hours of infection, yet since they are similar to meningitis, the infection is rarely diagnosed at an early stage with a blood test, and its late treatment hardly works.
Asked why was this infection reported in Karachi only, the officials said the answer to this question could only be found through study and research.
“We need to do research as why is Naegleria killing people in Karachi. May be there is a source which is contaminating the entire water tank. Karachi is an international city and may be some visitors from abroad were the source. There should be a reason for sure which can be known through research,” Dr Bahoto stressed.
“Researchers should also study a strange phenomenon in these cases and find why this virus is infecting young adults aged between 20 and 40, despite good immunity in this age group.”
He said the patient currently hospitalized and being monitored was quite young, and the good thing was that he had resisted the disease for long. “The other patients who died were also below 40, an age with good immunity,” Dr Bahoto added.