Free-living amoebae as opportunistic and non-opportunistic pathogens of humans and animals

Int J Parasitol. 2004 Aug;34(9):1001-27. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpara.2004.06.004.


Knowledge that free-living amoebae are capable of causing human disease dates back some 50 years, prior to which time they were regarded as harmless soil organisms or, at most, commensals of mammals. First Naegleria fowleri, then Acanthamoeba spp. and Balamuthia mandrillaris, and finally Sappinia diploidea have been recognised as etiologic agents of encephalitis; Acanthamoeba spp. are also responsible for amoebic keratitis. Some of the infections are opportunistic, occurring mainly in immunocompromised hosts (Acanthamoeba and Balamuthia encephalitides), while others are non-opportunistic (Acanthamoeba keratitis, Naegleria meningoencephalitis, and cases of Balamuthia encephalitis occurring in immunocompetent humans). The amoebae have a cosmopolitan distribution in soil and water, providing multiple opportunities for contacts with humans and animals, as evidenced by antibody titers in surveyed human populations. Although, the numbers of infections caused by these amoebae are low in comparison to other protozoal parasitoses (trypanosomiasis, toxoplasmosis, malaria, etc.), the difficulty in diagnosing them, the challenge of finding optimal antimicrobial treatments and the morbidity and relatively high mortality associated with, in particular, the encephalitides have been a cause for concern for clinical and laboratory personnel and parasitologists. This review presents information about the individual amoebae: their morphologies and life-cycles, laboratory cultivation, ecology, epidemiology, nature of the infections and appropriate antimicrobial therapies, the immune response, and molecular diagnostic procedures that have been developed for identification of the amoebae in the environment and in clinical specimens.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amebiasis / diagnosis*
  • Amebiasis / drug therapy
  • Amebiasis / epidemiology
  • Amebicides / therapeutic use
  • Amoebida / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Opportunistic Infections / diagnosis*
  • Opportunistic Infections / drug therapy
  • Opportunistic Infections / epidemiology


  • Amebicides