It sounds like science fiction; a weird miniscule amoeba, literally the size of the diameter of a human hair, slips up your nasal cavity and heads directly to your head and begins to eat your brain and in a matter of days you’re dead. Horror story, a nighttime tale of caution, an alcohol-induced fantasy? No this is sadly and weirdly true. In the 133 known cases from 1962 to 2014 in the United States, only one person has survived, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Meet Naegleria fowleri.
Not Afraid But Alert
In August 2015 an Oklahoma resident became infected with this killer amoeba while swimming in Lake Murray, located in Ardmore, Oklahoma near the Texas border and subsequently died. The unidentified person was infected with primary amebic meningoencephalitis (known as PAM) caused by Naegleria fowleri according to the Oklahoma Department of Health. To be sure, Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, with only seven cases occurring in Oklahoma alone since 1998 and please note it cannot be transmitted to another human. The disease-causing organism is found in fresh bodies of water and typically thrives in the warm summer months, July through September, though can also appear in tap water as you’ll see. Infections are usually found in southern and southwestern states, though two people have died from the organism as far north as Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Naegleria fowleri symptoms typically mirror bacterial meningitis, beginning with fever, chills, headaches and a stiff neck. Jessica Sheehy, a physician assistant and infectious diseases specialist at the Mayo Clinic Health System, told USA Today, “You have to have water go up into your nose to get an amoeba. Once symptoms start, patients only survive a few days.” She advised that if you or your child come down with symptoms, tell your doctor if you have been swimming in lake or river within the last two weeks.
The Neti Pot
Also known as nasal irrigation, the practice of flushing the sinus cavity has been around for a long time and is believed to have been used by ancient Hindus. Water is placed inside one nostril and allowed to filter out impurities through the other. It’s an odd sensation at first, but has long been a safe and non-invasive way to clear your nasal cavities, and I have used a neti pot on many occasions and it works very well. But pathogens hidden in regular tap water caused the deaths of two people in 2011. The culprit was, you guessed it, Naegleria fowleri. In Louisiana a 20-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman were infected by tap water later found to be contaminated with Naegleria fowleri. Both had used tap water in their neti pot, even though distilled water is always recommended for neti pots. Because stomach acid kills Naegleria fowleri, if you actually drink contaminated water it does not lead to infection. There were three other deaths reported, caused by the same amoeba in 2011, however these three deaths were caused by children swimming in natural bodies of water.
How To Avoid This Amoeba
The CDC suggests this:
--Avoid forcing water up the nose when swimming, playing, jumping, diving, or dunking your head into bodies of fresh water, such as lakes and ponds. This is especially important for water that is near shore, shallow, and warm.
--Hold your nose or use nose plugs when jumping or diving into water.
--Never swim in stagnant water, water that is cloudy and green, water that has mats of algae, or water that has a foul odor.
--Do not swim in areas posted as "No Swimming".
--Avoid swallowing water from rivers, lakes, streams, or stock ponds.
--Swimming in properly maintained pools prevents PAM because chlorine rapidly kills the amoeba.
I discuss this, and other pathogens, bacteria and other unmentionables in my book, Our World of Water: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Earth’s Most Critical Resource. Get your copy HERE.