It's an extremely rare infection, but it's still important to know the signs and symptoms.

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A family in North Carolina is mourning the loss of their 7-year-old son, who recently died from a brain-eating amoeba. David Pruitt died last week after contracting an infection from a Naegleria fowleri amoeba while swimming in a pond at his home, according to reports.

Boy dead from brain eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri , Full Length Of Two Boys Splashing Water In Lake Against Sky
Credit: Getty Images

"Our heart-felt condolences and sympathies are with the family and friends of this child," epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D., said in a press release issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. "Although these infections are very rare, this is an important reminder that this amoeba is present in North Carolina and that there are actions people can take to reduce their risk of infection when swimming in the summer."

Image of David Pruitt sitting at kitchen table
David Pruitt
| Credit: Courtesy of Pruitt family

Pruitt first became sick in late July and was put on life support with severe brain swelling, according to a GoFundMe set up for his family on August 4. An update to the GoFundMe shared on August 7 revealed that Pruitt had died. "We are sad and broken hearted to report, that our sweet little David has passed on," the update reads. "He is now in the loving arms of our Lord and family members who have passed before him. We are rejoicing in knowing he is no longer in pain and in the best of care."

Pruitt contracted a "devastating infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) from an amoeba found in freshwater and soil around the world," the GoFundMe says, before urging people to "take time to learn the signs and symptoms." The page also revealed that Pruitt's parents are "just trying to make it through each day. They are tired and overwhelmed by these events."

This story is tragic, and though PAM infections are rare, they're not completely unheard of; in fact, the family has asked Health to share the story of Kyle Lewis, another 7-year-old who passed away in 2010 after swimming in freshwater. Here's what you need to know about the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, how it causes a PAM infection, where it can be found, and what to look out for.

What is Naegleria fowleri?

Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic amoeba that's often referred to as a "brain-eating amoeba," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The amoeba is usually found in warm freshwater—lakes, rivers, and hot springs—and soil, the CDC says, and it usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose.

Once the amoeba is in the nose, it can travel to a person's brain where it causes a rare, devastating, and often fatal brain infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).

While infections usually happen when people go swimming or diving in freshwater areas like lakes and rivers, in rare cases, PAM infections caused by Naegleria fowleri can happen with contaminated water from other sources, like inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated and contaminated tap water.

How often do Naegleria fowleri infections happen?

Luckily, they're really rare. In fact, the CDC only has 34 infections reported from 2010 to 2019. Of those, 30 people were infected by recreational water, three people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and one person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide.

While a Naegleria fowleri infection is devastating if it happens to you or one of your loved ones, the overall risk of this happening to anyone is low, infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. "Think about how many times people jump into rivers and ponds and how few these cases are," he says. "This is a very rare risk."

Timothy Murphy, M.D., senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, agrees. "There have been so few cases in the last 10 years and millions of people swim in warm, freshwater each year," he tells Health. But if you or your loved one is the one person it happens to once in a blue moon, it doesn't matter how rare it is. That's why Dr. Murphy recommends simply being "aware that it can happen."

What are the symptoms of PAM?

PAM has two different stages, and symptoms are different with each, the CDC explains.

These are the most common symptoms of stage 1:

  • Severe frontal headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

And these are typical of stage 2:

  • Stiff neck
  • Seizures
  • Altered mental status
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma

PAM is usually fatal—there are only five known survivors in North America.

How to lower your risk of a Naegleria fowleri infection

Again, infections caused by Naegleria fowleri are incredibly rare, and Dr. Adalja says that doing things like wearing nose plugs when you swim in freshwater are probably unnecessary. But, if you're particularly concerned about your risk, the CDC recommends trying to limit the amount of water that goes up your nose.

"Jumping into the water so that the water gets forced up your nose should be avoided," Dr. Murphy says. And, if you can help it, try not to stir up sediment at the bottom of freshwater. "That could stir up more amoeba," Dr. Murphy says.

Just to repeat, these infections are rare — but this is not an infection you want to get. "Usually, people don't survive it," Dr. Murphy says. "There are no good treatments that we know of for it."

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