As we enter the summer months, millions of Americans will flock to the water to cool off and to enjoy some recreational fun. While recent headlines have alerted people to the dangers of alligators in Florida lakes, water in Florida and elsewhere often conceals a much greater, yet lesser known, danger. The naegleria fowleri amoeba, often referred to as the brain-eating amoeba, is prevalent in freshwater bodies in Florida and throughout the southern U.S. The amoeba seems to thrive in warm, fresh water, particularly when the water and the surrounding soil become disturbed. The amoeba can also be found in swimming pools, hot tubs, water slides, and other chlorinated water sources if the water is not treated or balanced properly. Because the amoeba becomes more active as water temperatures rise, and water activities become more popular during the warmer months, summer often creates a potentially deadly combination. Over the last 40 years, there have been fewer than 30 fatal alligator attacks in the United States. During the same period of time, there have been more than 130 fatalities caused by the naegleria fowleri amoeba. Tragically, news this week reports that a Ohio teenager recently died from this amoeba after being exposed to it at a whitewater facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. Water testing has since revealed the presence of the amoeba in the water, and the facility has been temporarily shut down as a result.
When water containing the naegleria fowleri amoeba enters the nose, the amoeba follows the nasal cavity and enters the brain. The amoeba usually eats bacteria, but when it enters the human body, it uses the brain as a food source. Once in the brain, the amoeba causes a condition known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
In the first several days, initial symptoms can include headache, fever, nausea, and sniffles. This is part of what makes the amoeba so dangerous - the symptoms are very similarly to those of a common cold, causing victims and their family to treat it as nothing very serious. Unfortunately, by the time more serious symptoms begin to appear - hallucinations, confusion, seizures, and loss of balance - it's already too late. The amoeba is nearly always fatal within two weeks of exposure, with a fatality rate of more than 97%.
Several years ago, our firm represented the families of two young boys who tragically died from PAM after becoming infected with the naegleria fowleri amoeba. In July 2001, Timmy (age 4), visited a water-splash fountain at a park in Florida. Although the water was chlorinated, conditions existed that provided a suitable environment for the amoeba. A few days later, Timmy started to show some symptoms, and his parents thought he had a minor cold. Sadly, he died just 10 days after playing in the water fountain. One year later, in July 2002, Scott was playing in the same water-splash fountain at the same park. He died 9 days later. Both boys died of PAM after becoming infected with the naegleria fowleri amoeba. In representing both families, we worked and consulted with some of the top experts in the United States regarding the amoeba to learn as much as possible about this very deadly, yet little known, danger.
Although the amoeba is commonly found in various warm bodies of fresh water, infections are relatively rare. From 1962 to 2015, only 138 cases have been reported. Of those, 135 were fatal. While the rate of infection may seem small, the likelihood of the infection becoming fatal is extremely high. Accordingly, it’s important to take reasonable precautions when venturing into the water this summer. You cannot become infected with naegleria fowleri by drinking or swallowing water that contains it. The amoeba can only cause an infection when it enters through the nose. Notably, it seems to infect children at a much higher rate than adults. The amoeba cannot live in saltwater, so it is not present in the ocean. Some cases have of the amoeba have been reported in backyard hoses, sprinklers, and slip-and-slides, so be careful with these common summertime activities.
Recommended precautions include:
- Wear nose plugs
- Limit the time your head is underwater
- Pinch your nose closed when diving or jumping into the water
- If you get water in your nose, blow it out immediately.
- Avoid swimming in lakes, canals, rivers, and other fresh-water sources
- Ensure that swimming pools, hot tubs, splash fountains and other water attractions are properly chlorinated or chemically-treated