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Summer swimming and the risk of 'brain eating amoebas', protecting against Naegleria


The kids are out of school and next Friday is the first day of summer. With the sweltering sun beating down, many will seek recreational water sports like swimming to cool off.

However, there is a risk, albeit rare, of a microscopic amoeba present in warm, fresh water like lakes and ponds, that can be deadly, very deadly.

The Florida Department of Health reminded the public in Central Florida about keeping safe when swimming in the many lakes in this part of the state due to the threat of Naegleria fowleri.

What is Naegleria fowleri?

It is a single celled amoeba that may be present in warm freshwater (e.g. lakes, rivers, and hot springs). It is also called the "brain-eating amoeba".

People typically contract this parasite when contaminated water rushes up the nose when jumping into the water. Once the amoeba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM). From here it destroys brain tissue with a fatality rate of well over 99 percent.

The symptoms of PAM are practically indistinguishable from bacterial meningitis early in the infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), initial symptoms of PAM start about 5 days (range 1 to 7 days) after infection. The initial symptoms may include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting. Later symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations. After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about 5 days (range 1 to 12 days).

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In addition to lakes and ponds, this parasite can be contracted from swimming pools that are poorly maintained, minimally-chlorinated, and/or un-chlorinated, hot springs and other source of warm, fresh water.

While most cases of PAM have been recorded from the southern states, cases have been reported recently in more northern states like Indiana and Minnesota.

It is a rather rare infections with some 128 known cases recorded in the US since 1962; however, there is only one known survivor. And in the one survivor, it has been suggested that the survivor’s strain of Naegleria fowleri was less virulent.

Treatment for this parasite has been unsatisfactory.

What can you do to protect you and your family from the "brain-eating amoeba"?

The CDC says, "Personal actions to reduce the risk of Naegleria fowleri infection should focus on limiting the amount of water going up the nose and lowering the chances that Naegleria fowleri may be in the water. "

These include:

  • Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater.
  • Avoid putting your head under the water in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

Image: DPDx Image Library

Video courtesy: Paul Cochrane