Freshwater lakes and rivers across America may have a deadly parasite lurking in them this summer that rapidly eats away at the brain – and experts warn that if it gets into your nose, it has a 97 percent chance of being fatal, often within five days of feeling symptoms.
Naegleria fowleri lives in fresh water across the world. It thrives in warmer temperatures of around 115 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes cases to usually emerge during the summer months. This means that lakes and rivers around America are at risk of carrying the dangerous organisms. Even splash parks could be a risk: a Texas three-year-old died after being exposed to it at a local splash park last year.
Contaminated water ingested through the nose gives the amoeba a direct route to the brain, where it is almost always fatal, but swallowing contaminated water causes no harm because stomach acid is strong enough to kill the bacteria, a parasitic disease expert told DailyMail.com.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 154 known cases on infection over the past 60 years – with almost all in southern states that reach scalding temperatures over summer. All but four of those cases resulted in death – a survival rate of only three percent. These cases are clustered in Texas and Florida in particular, which have recorded 40 and 36 infections respectively since 1962 when the CDC started tracking cases.
Two cases have been detected already this year, including a Missouri man who died after being infected in an Iowa lake, and a Florida teen who has been left fighting for his life after swimming in a local river.
After a person is exposed to the amoeba, they will likely feel symptoms such as a headache, nausea and fatigue within the next one to nine days. Once symptoms begin, death will almost always occur within five days.
Dr Anjan Debnath, a parasitic disease expert at the University of California, San Diego, tells DailyMail.com that because of how rare it is, doctors also often misdiagnose symptoms as meningitis – wasting valuable time that could be used treating the parasite.
Cases are not only reserved for lakes and rivers either. Improper water treatment in pools, private ponds and even tap water can lead to deadly exposure to the amoeba as well – causing multiple deaths among children in recent years.
Debnath, a parasitic disease expert at the University of California, San Diego, said that the amoeba thrives in temperatures of around 115 Fahrenheit, meaning it will be most active on the hottest days of summer in states where high temperatures are not uncommon.
He explained that it enters through the nose’s olfactory nerve, giving it a short and direct route into the brain. If water that contains the amoeba enters the nose then it will likely lead to infection.
Ingesting water through the mouth is ok, though, because stomach acid is strong enough to kill the amoeba.
Once a person’s olfactory nerve is exposed it can take around one to nine days for them to start experiencing symptoms. They will usually die within five days of symptoms first appearing.
Dr Anjan Debnath (pictured), a parasitic disease expert at the University of California, San Diego, told DailyMail.com that people should avoid swimming in fresh water lakes and rivers this summer, and if they do they should use a nose plug to stop water from entering
‘It’s quite rapid, it’s very progressive. It literally eats the brain tissue,’ Debnath explained.
He describes the infection as taking part in two stages. The first is relatively minor, with the person experiencing a headache and other flu-like symptoms. This means that unless a doctor is aware that a person had been swimming in untreated water they may not even suspect the amoeba.
Once symptoms reach the second stage, a person will start experiencing severe neurological issues like seizures. A doctor will then likely find out about the infection through a spinal fluid test.
By that point a person has likely already experienced symptoms so severe that death is near-guaranteed.
A similar situation occurred with Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, of Port Charlotte, Florida.
The teen was swimming in a river near his home on July 1 for a family outing to escape the Florida heat. When he was ill, doctors first diagnosed him with meningitis – delaying the time it took for his to get treated for the infection.
Five days later, fever struck Caleb and he complained of hallucinations. His parents rushed him to the hospital in Fort Myers, where doctors diagnosed him with meningitis in the pediatric intensive care unit.
‘Unfortunately, it appears that the amoeba Naegleria fowleri is responsible for his illness,’ Katie Chiet, the boy’s aunt, said on his crowdfunding page.
More than a week after he entered the hospital, doctors finally realized that he was suffering from the 97 percent fatal parasite.
‘They plan to reintubate him to take some pressure off him breathing so he can focus on just resting and healing his brain,’ Elizabeth Ziegelbauer wrote on GoFundme.
The inflammation to his brain has gotten progressively worse. Normally, the parasite kills its host within 17 days, but Caleb has survived 11 days past that.
Caleb Ziegelbauer (pictured), 13, of Port Charlotte, Florida, is currently fighting for his life hospitalized after suffering an infection from the brain eating amoeba
Ziegelbauer is the second confirmed case of the brain eating amoeba causing an infection in the United States this year.
At the start of the month, an unnamed Missouri man was infected while swimming in the lake at Lake of the Three Fires State Park in Iowa. In response, health officials shut down the beach.
While these cases are rare, with under three being detected per year on average, Debnath still advises against swimming in untreated water over summer, especially in places like Florida and Texas where temperatures get exceptionally high.
Because the amoeba only resides in fresh water, swimming in the ocean is generally safe.
If families do choose to visit a fresh water beach, anyone entering the water should wear a nose clip to prevent water from entering their nose.
Debnath also recommends against kicking up dirt or sand from the bottom of the lake as warmer areas deep down are where the microscopic beings usually lie.
Cases are not always spawned out of fresh water lakes and rivers, either. In 2020, a six-year-old boy in Texas died after being exposed through the water supply in his home city of Lake Jackson.
Last year, a three-year-old child in the state died after being exposed to the brain eating amoeba in a splash park. His family later sued for negligence, saying operators should have taken better care to sanitize the water.
A North Carolina child, whose age was not revealed, died last year after being exposed to an improperly sanitized private pond.
Debnath said that these cases could have been avoided with proper chlorination and sanitation of the sitting water alone.