South Korea has reported its first case of Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as “brain-eating amoeba”. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) confirmed that a Korean national in his 50s who died after returning from Thailand was infected with Naegleria fowleri, which destroys human brains, a report in The Korea Herald said.

This is the first known brain-eating amoeba infection reported in the country. The disease was first reported in the United States in 1937.

The man came back to Korea on December 10 after a four-month stay in Thailand. He was admitted to a hospital next day. He died on Wednesday last week, The Korean Herald reported.

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Genetic tests on three types of pathogens causing Naegleria fowleri were conducted to confirm the cause of the man’s death. “The testing confirmed the gene in the man’s body was 99.6 percent similar to that found in a meningitis patient reported abroad,” the Korean disease control agency said.

Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba commonly found in warm freshwater lakes, rivers, canals and ponds throughout the world. The amoeba enters the human body by inhalation and then travels to the brain.

Initial symptoms include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting. Later symptoms can lead to severe headaches, fever, vomiting and a stiff neck. The incubation period for ‘brain-eating amoeba’ is usually from two to three days and up to 15 days at most.

Even though human-to-human transmission of Naegleria fowleri is not possible, the KDCA has asked residents to refrain from swimming in regions and neighborhoods where the disease broke out. It said that the risk of infection was not high, but most cases start through swimming.

“To prevent the infection of Naegleria fowleri, we recommend avoiding swimming and leisure-related activities and using clean water when traveling to areas where cases have been reported,” Jee Young-mee, who heads the KDCA, said via a press release.

A total of 381 Naegleria fowleri cases have been reported as of 2018 in the world, including in the US, India and Thailand.

The United States has reported the maximum of 154 infections from 1962 through 2021. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only four people survived, with a death rate over 97 per cent.

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