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Brain-eating amoeba common in Florida; researchers race for cure

The deadly brain-eating amoeba that infected a swimmer in Broward County this month typically appears in the press as a rare, freakish germ.

"Brit families BEWARE," warns a headline in The Daily Express. "Fatal amoeba lurking in Florida holiday hotspot."

But while infections are infrequent, the Naegleria fowleri amoeba is common in southern states. If you cup your hands and scoop up water in any lake or stream in Florida during the summer, there's a good chance you've scooped up some of them.

"It's everywhere," said Dennis Kyle, a scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, whose laboratory is working on a cure for an illness that had almost invariably been a death sentence.

As a graduate student, Kyle found 20 to 50 of the microscopic creatures in every liter of water taken from South Carolina lakes. He said there was no reason to think Florida would be different since the amoebas live in warm, fresh water.

"Especially at this time of year, when it's warm, you'll find it all over the place," he said.

What makes infections rare is the amoeba's method of piercing the brain's defenses. It travels up the nose and through the openings for the olfactory nerves into the brain, where, true to its name, it starts to consume tissue. Death comes less from the amoeba itself than from the body's defenses, which cause a fatal swelling of the brain.