A disaster declaration was issued for the city, with residents warned to only use bottled water or boiled tap water.

By Claire Gillespie
September 28, 2020
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A 6-year-old boy died in Lake Jackson, Texas, after being infected by a brain-eating amoeba that enters the nose and travels to the brain. The organism, Naegleria fowleri, was also found in Lake Jackson’s water supply, leading to a disaster declaration for the city.  

The boy’s family said they thought he had been exposed to the organism from a water hose at his home or from a city splash pad (where water spurts up from the ground), Lake Jackson officials said in a news release, reported The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Texas Department of State Health Services assisted with extensive water testing, which resulted in three “preliminary positive” results—one from a “dead end fire hydrant downtown,” one from a “splash pad storage tank,” and one from the boy’s “home hose bib.” 

The Brazosport Water Authority released a “do not use” water advisory for eight Texas cities on Friday. The following day, the warning was lifted in all cities except for Lake Jackson, when Mayor Bob Sipple issued the disaster declaration. The warning was lifted from the city later on Saturday, and a boil notice went into effect. This means residents must use bottled water or boiled tap water until the risk of contamination from community water is wiped out.

The notice urged residents to take other precautions, such as running bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes, and not allowing children to play with any hose, sprinkler, or toy that could accidentally squirt water up their noses. 

On Sunday, Governor Greg Abbott released a disaster declaration for Brazoria County, which includes Lake Jackson. This gives the county access to additional state resources to deal with the emergency.

What is Naegleria fowleri?

Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic amoeba found in warm or hot freshwater sources around the world, such as lakes, rivers, canals, and hot springs. (It’s not found in saltwater, like the ocean.) In the US, it’s more common in southern states and in the peak seasons of July, August, and September, when water levels are lower and water temperatures are higher, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.  

How do people get infected? 

Typically through contaminated water, which travels up the nose and into the brain. According to the CDC, this normally happens when people swim or dive in warm, freshwater areas, like rivers and lakes. You can’t get infected by drinking contaminated water, but very rarely infections occur when contaminated water gets into the nose from other sources, like contaminated tap water or an inadequately chlorinated swimming pool. The CDC says there is no evidence of Naegleria fowleri spreading via water vapor or aerosol droplets.  

What happens when the amoeba gets into the brain? 

Once in the brain, the organism causes the disease primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which destroys brain tissue and causes brain swelling and death. 

Are there any warning signs of infection? 

Early symptoms of PAM, which start between one and nine days after infection, may be similar to symptoms of bacterial meningitis. These include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting, per the CDC. Other symptoms can occur at a later stage, such as stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations. This is a rapidly progressing disease; after the onset of symptoms, death usually occurs within one to 12 days. 

How common are Naegleria fowleri infections? 

Infections from this brain-eating amoeba are rare––between 2005 and 2014, 35 infections were reported in the US, according to the CDC. However, this is an extremely serious infection. All but two of those infections were fatal, and of 133 people known to be infected in the US since 1962, only three survived. 

Although this infection is rare, you should seek immediate medical attention if you’ve  been in warm freshwater recently and develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck, or vomiting. 

How are Naegleria fowleri infections prevented? 

The only way to completely avoid Naegleria fowleri infection is to refrain from water-related activities. Otherwise, you can take measures to reduce your risk (and remember, this is an extremely rare infection). 

The Texas Department of State Health Services advises avoiding water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels (i.e. during July, August, and September); holding your nose shut or using nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, or hot springs; and using only sterile, distilled, or lukewarm previously boiled water for nasal irrigation or sinus flushes.

The department also advises  refraining from putting your head underwater in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters and refraining from digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow and warm freshwater areas.  

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