Every year as temperatures rise so does the risk of being infected by a brain-eating amoeba that lives in all freshwater. These infections result in death in 97% of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even though these infections are rare, awareness and prevention are the best way to avoid these tragic deaths.
Visiting one of Texas’ many lakes, rivers or pools can be the answer to a hot summer day, but it is important to know the risks of visiting these surface waters. Texas’ freshwater, and sometimes pools, can be home to a brain-eating amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. Naegleria fowleri can cause a deadly disease called Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, or PAM, which attacks the central nervous system.
Luckily, there are many ways to prevent catching it while still spending your summer swimming.
The first question many have is if it can be tested for in our lakes. The Brazos River Authority does not test for the Naegleria fowleri amoeba because it is common in all surface water worldwide. Those who live in warmer-weather states such as Texas should assume there is a risk when entering all warm freshwater bodies.
Knowing about the danger of these freshwater amoebas does not mean you have to live in fear of visiting your favorite water spots, such as Possum Kingdom Lake or the Brazos River. Instead, education can help keep you and your loved ones safe.
These amoebas thrive in warm freshwater. Infection cannot occur from person to person or from drinking the water. Infection can only happen from water containing the amoeba going up the nose.
To prevent infection, the CDC recommends wearing nose clips, or holding your nose, and avoiding submerging your head under water.
The amoeba is also often found in soil, so it is best to avoid stirring up underwater sediment while swimming.
The Texas Health and Human Services recommends avoiding water activities in bodies of warm freshwater where the water level is low. Health officials recommend people avoid stagnant or polluted water and take “No Swimming” signs seriously. Swimming pools and hot tubs that are properly cleaned, maintained and chlorinated are generally safe, as is saltwater.
According to the CDC, in total there have been 151 cases reported in the United States, 39 of these cases reported in Texas. Out of the 151 documented cases from 1962 to 2020, only four people have survived. Every year most infections happen in southern states because these amoebas thrive in warmer water, from 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius).
Although these cases are often found in states with warmer climates, there have been cases as far north as Minnesota.
An earlier case of death related to amoeba infection happened on Aug. 29, 2010. Kyle Lewis, a 7-year-old boy died of PAM after being infected by an amoeba found in the Paluxy River at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose after going swimming with family. After his tragic death, his family established the Kyle Lewis Amoeba Awareness Foundation, committed to informing the public about the dangers of Naegleria fowleri. To learn more about Kyle’s story click here.
There are a variety of drugs that are effective against the amoeba in lab tests, but the most effective treatment has been through early diagnosis and treatment. The treatment is an antifungal drug like amphotericin B that is injected into the spine to kill the amoeba and stop the infection from spreading. According to the CDC, another effective drug, miltefosine, in combination with other drugs reduces brain swelling. The most recent survivors of PAM underwent this treatment.
The key to both treatments is early action, so it is important for those experiencing symptoms to visit a physician or emergency room and alert their caregiver that they’ve been exposed to water that could contain the amoeba so that specific testing may be done. According to the CDC, PAM symptoms typically occur 1-9 days after exposure. Early symptoms include severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. Late-stage symptoms include a stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations and coma.
According to the CDC the age group that has experienced the highest rates of PAM is from 10-14 years old. However, most cases of PAM disproportionately affect younger people from ages under 1 up to 15-19 years old. Records show that although there are higher rates of PAM in younger age groups, all age groups have been affected.
Only by being aware and taking the right safety steps can PAM be prevented.
For more information about PAM, go here or contact the Texas Department of State Health Services Public Information Office at (512) 458-7400. More information about the Kyle Cares outreach can be found at http://www.kylelewisamoebaawareness.org/.0
By Ariel Wright