Every few years, a parasite commonly referred to as Brain-Eating Amoeba starts to attract attention for its sudden and often fatal impact on humans. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only three of the 138 people known to be infected survived. From 2006 to 2015, 37 infections were reported and all but two were fatal. The good news is amoeba infection, and the resulting illness, are rare and often avoidable.
What is Brain-Eating Amoeba?
The term “amoeba” describes hundreds of organisms and can also be spelled “ameba.”
Naegleria fowleri is the species commonly referred to as Brain-Eating Amoeba. Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism that loves warm freshwater, such as the lakes and ponds, found in Central Florida. Brain-Eating Amoeba is found worldwide.
The often-fatal illness caused by Brain-Eating Amoeba is “Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis” (PAM). Fortunately, PAM is exceedingly rare in Florida and the rest of the United States.
How Do Brain-Eating Amoebas Infect People?
Brain-Eating Amoeba infects people when contaminated water travels up the nose. This usually occurs as people take part in freshwater recreational activities. After an amoeba enters the body, through the nose, it travels to the brain where it can cause Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM). PAM destroys brain tissue and can cause swelling and death.
Infections usually occur in July, August, or September; however in Florida, the season may range earlier and later due to our prolonged hot weather. Naegleria fowleri is not found in salt water (like the ocean) and infections can not spread from person to person.
How Can You Avoid “Brain-Eating Amoeba?
Naegleria fowleri is usually found in the sediments of warm water. Therefore, the best way to avoid infection is to avoid stirring up bottom of Florida lakes, rivers, ponds, or other bodies of water. Discourage children of all ages from digging around in the shallows or diving down to dig in the sediments. Reduce your risk of infection by keeping your face away from the bottom sediments in warm water.
You cannot get infected by drinking contaminated water or by eating fish from water containing Brain-Eating Amoeba. The only way to ‘catch’ Brain-Eating Amoeba is by having water containing the amoeba enter the nose.
Avoid playing or swimming in warm shallow water during the summer months to reduce your risk. Avoid warm, shallow, or stagnant water when water skiing, tubing, or jet-skiing as these activities can cause water to be forced up the nose. Protect yourself and your family further by encouraging those playing or swimming in warm water to wear ear plugs and a nose clip. According to the CDC, “These recommendations make common sense but are not based on any scientific testing since the low numbers of infections make it difficult to ever show that they are effective.”
What are the Symptoms of PAM?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms may be mild at first but will worsen quickly. The CDC lists the following symptoms:
- Symptoms usually start 5 days post-infection but may range from 1-7 days post-infection
- Typically include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting
- Later symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures, hallucinations, and lack of attention to people or surroundings
- After symptoms begin, the illness typically causes death within 5 days but may range from 1-12 days
Contact your doctor immediately, if you suspect infection after playing or swimming in warm water. In the few known cases of survival, the patients recognized the symptoms early and administered proper treatment quickly. Seek treatment immediately to improve chances of success.
Where Can I Find More Information?
For more information on infection rates, prevention, or information En Español, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s brain-eating amoeba website, www.cdc.gov/naegleria, or contact them at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).
For more information on Florida lake conditions that may favor ameba, read Florida LAKEWATCH’s publication, Amoebas in Lakes or, contact them at 1-800-LAKEWATCH (800-525-3928). You can visit their website at http://lakewatch.ifas.ufl.edu/