Just the words “deadly brain-eating amoeba” can create enough panic to cause a national stir. Still, health officials know that 2011’s death toll of four attributed to the Naegleria fowleri is not uncommon.
“That’s pretty typical,” Jonathan Yoder of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Yahoo!. Yoder is the CDC’s coordinator of waterborne disease and outbreak surveillance systems.
The organism, which causes brain infection, is especially deadly: Of 122 documented cases since 1962, only one person has survived. According to the CDC, the amoeba is commonly found in warm freshwater areas such as lakes and ponds but can also be found in rivers and hot springs. The organism affects people by entering the system through the nose. Once the organism hits the brain, the ensuing infection is usually fatal. Symptoms include fever, nausea, stiff neck, and a frontal headache.
Four cases were confirmed by the CDC this year:
- A Kansas resident died in early September after swimming in a lake. It was the first confirmed case in Kansas.
- In August, a 16-year-old girl from Florida died after swimming in St. John’s River in Brevard County.
- Also in August, a 9-year-old boy from Virginia died shortly after attending fishing camp.
- In June, a 20-year-old’s death was later linked to the infection. He was infected after using a neti pot and officials found the amoeba in his home’s water system.
“You would see this in the South more … because water would stay warmer longer [there],” Miranda Myrick, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told LJWorld.
According to Yoder, the Kansas death, coupled with a death in Minnesota the previous year, has officials eyeing how the organism survives in colder areas.
Prevention is tricky, Yoder says — we can’t simply shut down all summertime swimming in ponds and lakes. Yoder also clarifies that people should be aware of the danger when swimming, in the same way we might caution against risks such as drowning or thunderstorms.
He suggests that people swimming in freshwater areas during the summer should consider not putting their heads underwater and should wear nose plugs.
Mike Benzie is a Yahoo! editor covering Atlanta. He has been an editor and reporter for more than 15 years.