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Brain Eating Ameba in Arizona

Fatal Parasite Kills AZ Boy

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A 14-year-old teenager from Lake Havasu City, Arizona died in September 2007 from an infection caused by an ameba. Only one type of Naegleria has been found to infect humans. That is the Naegleria fowleri (pronounced nuh-GLEER-ee-uh FOWL'-erh-eye). That's the kind that was fatal to Aaron Evans.

The Naegleria fowleri is microscopic. It can be found anywhere where there is warm, fresh water such as lakes, rivers, hot springs and swimming pools that are not chlorinated. Although this particular ameba is not very rare, infections from the ameba are. According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), from 2001 to 2010 there were 32 cases reported in the U.S. Of those, 30 people were infected by contaminated recreational water and two people were infected by water from a geothermal (naturally hot) drinking water supply.

Even though it is rare, infection is most likely to occur during the dry, summer months, when the air temperature is hot, the water is warm, and water levels are low.

You can't get an infection from this brain-eating ameba just by swimming in warm water. The ameba has to enter the body through the nose. The ameba then travels to the brain and spinal cord where causes the disease primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), leading to the destruction of the brain tissue.

According to the CDC, "initial signs and symptoms of PAM start 1 to 14 days after infection. These symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, and stiff neck. As the amebae cause more extensive destruction of brain tissue this leads to confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations. After the onset of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually results in death within 3 to 7 days."

Remember--this infection is very rare. Early symptoms may be caused by other more common illnesses. You should seek medical care immediately if they develop a sudden onset of two or more of the early symptoms at the same time or if symptoms are unusually severe.

The Naegleria infection cannot be spread from person-to-person contact.

We have many warm water lakes and rivers in Arizona, and Lake Havasu is a very popular vacation spot, as well as a top Spring Break destination. Although this was a terrible occurrence, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't ever go into the water again. You can reduce your risk of being infected by this terrible parasite.

DON'T...

  • swim or jump into bodies of warm freshwater, hot springs, and thermally-polluted water such as water around power plants.
  • swim or jump into freshwater during periods of high temperature and low water volume.
  • dig in or stir up the sediment while swimming in shallow, warm freshwater areas.
  • swim in areas posted as "no swimming" or in areas warning about an increased risk of Naegleria infection.

DO...

  • use nose clips when jumping or diving into bodies of warm freshwater
For more information about the Naegleria fowleri infection, visit the Center For Disease Control online.

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