The unnamed person contracted Naegleria fowleri, commonly found in warm freshwater lakes and rivers in the southern states.

By Korin Miller
July 06, 2020
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Florida is currently facing a record number of COVID-19 cases—the state saw 10,000 new diagnoses on July 4. But now, Florida residents have another health issue to worry about, after public officials issued an alert about a case of a rare brain-eating amoeba in the state.

According to a press release shared by the Florida Department of Health (DOH) on July 3, health officials revealed one person in the state's Hillsborough County had contracted Naegleria fowleri, more commonly known as a brain-eating amoeba. "The amoeba can cause a rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal,” press release said.

The Florida DOH added that there have been 37 cases of of Naegleria fowleri with exposure in Florida since 1962, but didn't provide any other details about the current patient. Here's what you need to know about the brain-eating amoeba.

What is Naegleria fowleri, exactly?

Naegleria fowleri, which is usually referred to as a brain-eating amoeba, is a free-living microscopic amoeba that can be found in warm freshwater—like lakes, rivers, ponds, and canals—and soil, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. While the amoeba may be found in any freshwater body in the US, it's more commonly found in the southern states, and in peak seasons of July, August, and September, when water temperatures are higher and water levels are lower, according to the Florida DOH. It’s not common, but it’s also possible to contract the amoeba when improperly chlorinated swimming pool water or heated and contaminated tap water gets up the nose, the CDC says.

Infections can happen when contaminated water enters the body through the nose and travels to the brain where it can cause a rare infection known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the CDC explains. People do not, however, become infected from simply drinking potentially contaminated water, per the CDC.

It can take anywhere from one to nine days for symptoms of PAM to show up after someone is infected, according to the CDC. Those symptoms can include things like headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting, followed by stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations, the CDC says. Once someone develops symptoms, the CDC says that PAM usually moves “rapidly” and often kills people within five days, adding that sometimes the disease progresses so rapidly that a diagnosis is only made after death.

How worried about Naegleria fowleri should you be—and what can you do to lower your risk?

Naegleria fowleri infections are scary, and while they are rare, they do happen. There were 34 infections reported in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018, per CDC data. Of those, 30 people were infected by “recreational water,” there were infected after doing nasal irrigation with contaminated tap water, and one was infected from contaminated tap water used on a slip-n-slide. The low number of infections makes it more difficult for doctors and researchers to know why very few people go on to develop those infections, while millions of others swim in similar waters each year and remain unaffected.

The Florida DOH stressed that Naegleria fowleri infections can be preventable by “avoiding nasal contact” with water. The organization specifically recommends that people do the following to lower their risk:

  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater and hot springs.
  • Avoid going in the water in areas where the water temperature is high and the water levels are low.
  • Avoid digging up or stirring up sediment in warm, freshwater areas.
  • Hold your nose or wear nose clips while using warm freshwater lakes, rivers, or hot springs.
  • Use only boiled and cooled, distilled, or sterile water for sinus rinse solutions.

PAM, the disease caused by a Naegleria fowleri infection, is generally fatal—the CDC says that, of 145 total infections in the US between 1962 and 2018, only four people have survived. But while the general outlook for brain-eating amoeba infections is poor, the CDC remains hopeful that early diagnosis and new treatments may increase chances for survival for future patients. The Florida DOH, however, did not share the outcome of the unidentified patient most recently diagnosed with the infection.

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