How to avoid contracting a brain-eating amoeba

WASHINGTON – Two children in Arkansas and Florida are fighting a brain-eating, amoeba-caused infection. The rare condition seems to be increasing in frequency and has been reported as far north as Minnesota, even though the microbe loves the heat of the American South.

Travis Heggie, an expert in wilderness and travel medicine, says the growing number of cases is likely due to more accurate diagnoses of the disease, called primary amebic meningoencephalitis.

A 12-year-old boy in Florida and a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas are both fighting an infection of the brain caused by the Naegleria fowleri (pronounced nuh-GLEER- ee-uh FOWL-er-eye), which is a microscopic, single-celled amoeba commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers. The amoeba also can be found in non-sterile or contaminated solutions used in neti pots, hot-water heaters and poorly chlorinated pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heggie, who was formerly a public risk management specialist for the National Park Service and is now an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, tells WTOP that the amoeba are most commonly found in rivers or lakes with water as warm as 84 degrees.

“The warmer the water, the more prominent it is,” Heggie says. “Now that we’re seeing more and more people are aware of this, it’s being properly diagnosed. Last summer, we had cases in Virginia, Minnesota, anywhere where there’s warm water. Hot springs even. If you’ve got water that’s around a power plant or some other type of industrial plant and it’s somewhat polluted, it can show up there just as easy.”

Avoiding this amoeba is as simple as staying out of warm water. But if you do decide to enjoy the water, Heggie says to use nose clips to keep the water out of your nasal passages.

“You want to keep the water out of your nose,” he says. “This amoeba, if it gets into your mouth, you’re fine; if you drink it, you’re fine; in your ear, it’s fine. But if it gets up into your nose, into your nasal cavity, it gets in through your sinuses and into your brain and to your central nervous system and essentially starts eating away at your brain.”

According to the CDC, patients who contract the infection typically die within five days of the start of their symptoms, which can include headache, fever, nausea, a stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and seizures.

Between 2003 and 2012, just 31 of these infections were reported in the United States. Of those, 28 were infected from contaminated recreational water and three were infected using contaminated water to irrigate their nasal passages.

The CDC offers these tips to avoid contracting the amoeba infection:

  • Hold your nose shut or use nose clips.
  • Keep your head above water when swimming or boating in warm, freshwater.
  • Don’t put your head under water in hot springs or untreated thermal waters.
  • Avoid water activities in warm, freshwater during periods of high temperatures and low water levels.
  • Don’t dig in or stir up sediment in shallow, warm, freshwater areas.

Learn more about the parasite Naegleria fowleri on the CDC’s website.

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