“As if we didn't have enough to worry about with terrorists and bandits,” said one disgruntled Karachi resident. “Now we have brain-eating amoeba to contend with.” Indeed, the latest threat in the notoriously crime-ridden city is not robbery or sectarian violence, but a waterborne organism that causes a form of meningitis.
The phrase "brain-eating amoeba", which sounds more suited to science fiction than real life, has adorned the front pages of the city's newspapers for the past week. It refers to Naegleria fowleri, an organism which is found in warm bodies of fresh water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers, and hot springs. The amoeba travels through the nasal membranes to the brain, triggering mild symptoms such as a headache, stiff neck, fever, and stomach ache. There is a 98 per cent chance of death, which usually occurs five to seven days after infection. Ten people in Karachi have died since May, although more cases may have gone unreported.
It was revealed this week that none of those who died in the recent outbreak had been swimming, causing anxiety that the amoeba is living in the tap water rather than in the pools where it is traditionally found.
This is a particular risk because the religious ritual of washing before prayers includes a thorough cleansing of the nose – which is, of course, the danger zone for the infection. A public health campaign is being launched; advising people to avoid getting water too deep into their nostrils and to make sure the water is properly treated. And, as always in South Asia, the chance for some extra bureaucracy is not to be missed: the provincial health minister announced that "several committees are being formed" to address the problem.