On September 7, 2013, a child (believed to be a 4-year old boy from Mississippi) died after contracting a rare, but deadly, brain-eating infection while visiting Louisiana. The boy may have come into contact with the waterborne brain-eating amoeba, known doctors as scientist as Naegleria fowleri, while playing on a plastic toy water slide at a home in St. Bernard’s Parish, Louisiana. According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, water samples taken from the home the child was visiting tested positive for amoeba.
Unfortunately, this was not the only story of a child becoming infected with the brain-eating amoeba reported recently. On August 3, 2013, a 12-year old South Florida boy was knee-boarding in ditch water in Glades County, Florida when he contracted primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the infection caused by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, through his nose. Although antibiotics successfully fought off the infection, the boy suffered extensive brain damage, which left him on life support. The boy passed away on August 27, 2013. Finally, in July 2013, a 12-year old became ill after contracting the brain-eating parasite at a waterpark in Arkansas. However, she is one of the few individuals who managed to survive the infection after being treating with the experimental drug miltefosine, and was released from the hospital on September 11, 2013.
Despite the recent occurrences of infections, officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that only 128 people have been infected with PAM from 1962 to 2012. Of these 128 people, only two people in North America survived. In the future, this survival rate may increase as the CDC recently expanded doctors’ access to the experimental new drug, miltefosine, to treat deadly viruses, including PAM. Although used to treat another parasitic infection called leishmaniasis, and sometimes breast cancer, the drug was previously only used in emergency situations with permission from the FDA to treat PAM.
The Naegleria fowleri amoeba is usually found in warm, fresh waters. It thrives in water up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why it is usually confined to fresh water in found in southeastern states, including Texas. More recently, the amoeba has been found in states further north, such as Minnesota, Indiana, and Kansas. People commonly get infected when the amoeba travels from the water, up their nose and into the brain, where it then destroys brain tissue. As a result, the most common victims of PAM are individuals diving or swimming in rivers, lakes and swimming pools that have not been properly chlorinated. Notably, however, PAM can also be contracted in other ways. In 2011, two individuals died of PAM after using neti pots filled with contaminated tap water to rinse their nasal passages. Luckily, the amoeba does not cause infection when ingested orally because a patient can only become ill if they take the water through the nose.
According to the CDC, symptoms of PAM can be mild at first, but they worsen quickly. The symptoms, which usually start about 5 days after infection, include, but are not limited to, headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention, and hallucinations. After symptoms start, the disease can cause death within about 5 days, but can range from 1 to 12 days. While the CDC admits that it does not know how to lower natural Naegleria fowleri levels in lakes and rivers, there are steps an individual can take to prevent contraction of PAM.
Specifically, if you choose to partake in activities in warm freshwater, you should:
• Hold your nose shut or wear nose clips when swimming in warm, untreated freshwater.
• Keep your head above water in hot springs or other thermally heated bodies of water.
• Avoid digging or stirring up the sediment in lakes and ponds, where the amoeba may live.
• Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperatures and low water levels.
Moreover, when using a neti pot or sinus rinse bottle to clear up sinuses, you should use water that has been: boiled for at least 1 minute, filtered, or purchased with a label specifying that it contains distilled or sterile water.
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4-year-old dies after brain-eating amoeba infection, by John Bonifield, CNN
Zachary Reyna’s organs donated following amoeba battle, by Ryan Jaslow, CBS News
Ark. girl who survived rare infection goes home, The Associated Press
CDC Frees Up Drug That Fights Brain-Eating Amoeba, U.S. News & World Report
Naegleria fowleri – Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention