Rare, Fatal Brain-Eating Amoeba Strikes Again
By Dr. James Palermo // August 14, 2013
HIGHEST RISK IN WARM FRESH WATERS OF THE SOUTH
ABOVE VIDEO: The Florida Department of Health cautions those who swim frequently in Florida lakes and rivers about the possible presence of a brain-eating amoeba. While contact with this amoeba is rare, it is usually deadly. (Video by ABCActionNews).
A rare and deadly brain infection known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) has struck again in Florida.
It was recently reported by the Fort Myers News-Press that a 12-year-old Southwest Florida boy is fighting for his life in Miami Children’s Hospital after playing in water that was contaminated with the brain attacking Naegleria fowleri, an organism found naturally in freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds and hot springs in the United States, particularly in southern-tier states.
PAM RARE BUT ALMOST ALWAYS FATAL
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), just three PAM victims, the most recent a girl in Arkansas last month, have recovered out of the 128 who were infected in the U.S. over the past 50 years. The most recent known Florida infection prior to this one occurred in August 2011 and resulted in the death of a Brevard County teenager who was likely exposed to the organism while swimming in the St. John’s River.
Humans become infected when water containing Naegleria fowleri enters the nose and the amoeba migrates to the brain along the olfactory nerve. Signs and symptoms of PAM usually start within a week after infection and include frontal headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. As the disease progresses, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures, hallucinations and finally coma occur.
Because of its lethal nature, the possibility of PAM can be frightening, but, according to the CDC, there have only been 31 reported infections in the U.S. in the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, despite hundreds of millions of recreational water exposures each year. By comparison, in the ten years from 1996 to 2005, there were more than 39,000 drowning deaths in the United States.
AMOEBA NATURALLY OCCURRING AND CAN’T BE QUANTIFIED
It is unknown why certain persons become infected with Naegleria fowleri while millions of others exposed to warm recreational fresh waters do not, including those who were swimming with people who became infected. Despite attempts to determine what concentration of the amoeba in the environment poses an unacceptable risk no method currently exists that accurately and reproducibly quantifies Naegleria fowleria in the water.
There are also no means yet discovered that can control natural Naegleria fowleri levels in lakes and rivers, impeding any prevention plan efforts. Because of this, recreational water users should assume that there is always a very low level of risk whenever swimming, diving, or waterskiing in warm freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds or hot springs, particularly in the South. So, the only certain way to prevent a Naegleria fowleri infection due to swimming is to refrain from water-related activities in warm freshwater.
CDC FAQs EXCELLENT SOURCE OF INFORMATION ON PAM
With the wide variety of popular recreational opportunities available in Florida’s freshwater, almost all of us are at risk. The CDC has compiled a very useful set of “Frequently Asked Questions” that provides an excellent overview of PAM, including tips on what you can do to minimize exposure to the amoeba, and which I highly recommend to you to better understand the risk and allay fears related to PAM.