Natural Health

California Firefighter Dies from Complications of Meningoencephalitis

By: Madeline Ellis
Published: Friday, 21 March 2008
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Firefighting is an inherently difficult and dangerous occupation. Although the main task of a firefighter is to extinguish fires, they also rescue people from collapsed buildings, car accidents and other such situations. And even though firefighters have extensive training and follow every precaution, they often lose their lives in the line of duty.

Ironically, it wasn’t anything dangerous or heroic that took the life of a California firefighter. Capt. Matt Moore died, March 10 at the age of 43 from complications of meningoencephalitis after he was infected with a rare brain-eating parasite. Moore was a 17-year veteran of the Murrieta fire department.

At the time of his death, fire officials said Mr. Moore was surrounded by his wife, Sherry; his teenage children Alyssa, Trent and Branden; his parents, Carol and Phil Moore; brother, Mark, and many friends. “He maintained hope and courage right to the end, as we knew he would,” said Murrieta Fire Chief, Paul Christman. “Matt was that kind of a guy.”

Chief Christman also said of Matt Moore, “Matt was one of our best. He was involved in just about every aspect of our department. We’re going to miss his presence within our ranks greatly.”

Mr. Moore had been hospitalized off and on since November, when he first fell ill. But the cause of his illness wasn’t confirmed until January, when a biopsy showed that his brain had been invaded by the parasite Balamuthia mandrillaris, first identified in 1990 after a mandrill baboon at the San Diego Wild Animal Park was infected.

Balamuthia enters the body through the lower respiratory tract or through open wounds, where it may form a skin lesion or migrate to the brain. Once in the brain, Balamuthia causes a condition known as granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE).

The symptoms of infection by Balamuthia are unclear, but Balamuthia-induced GAE can cause focal paralysis, seizures, and brainstem symptoms such as facial paralysis, difficulty swallowing and double vision.

Balamuthia infection is usually fatal, having only been successfully treated in two cases. However, both survivors suffered permanent neurological deficits as a result of their infection.

Balamuthia has not been definitely isolated in nature, but is believed to usually live in soil. Experts from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) say these amoebas live in nearly half of the lakes in warmer parts of the country.

Sharon Reed, a professor of pathology at the University of California, San Diego says it appears that only people with weakened immune systems are at risk of infection. “The parasite can remain dormant for an unknown period,” said Reed. “The amoeba typically clusters around blood vessels in the brain and destroy surrounding cells.”

“When you think about the number of people who are exposed to dirt, it’s very, very rare,” Reed said. “This isn’t cause for huge hysteria.”

Thus far, more than 100 cases of Balamuthia mandrillaris have been reported. A 2004 study by the CDC in Atlanta showed that it is particularly prevalent in California, where at least 11 cases have been reported.