Health & Family

Brain-eating amoeba infection is ‘rare and devastating’

Brain-eating amoeba

Mecklenburg's health director on how concerned people should be about the amoeba and the whitewater center.
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Mecklenburg's health director on how concerned people should be about the amoeba and the whitewater center.

“Rare and devastating,” is how a CDC document described a brain-eating amoeba infection that killed an Ohio teen at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. 138 people were infected in the U.S. from 1962 to 2015. Only 3 survived. The fatality rate is over 97%.

The infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic organism. According to the CDC, it is an amoeba found in warm freshwater like lakes, rivers, hot springs and in soil. It infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. Infection usually occurs when the water temperature is over 80 degrees.

Once the amoeba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes a disease called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which is usually fatal. It cannot spread from one person to another, said the CDC.

There have been 3 deaths before the Ohio teen due to this infection in North Carolina since 1991. In 2003, a 12 year boy died after swimming in Falls Lake State Park in July. A Pitt County teen caught the infection after swimming at Twin Lakes Camping Resort in July 1999 and died. A 3 year old Pitt County girl also died of the same infection in 1991.

Across the country, Texas and Florida have by far seen the most cases of PAM infection, according to a CDC report. Both states each had 34 cases of infection between 1962 and 2015. Other common states for this infection include Arizona, California, Oklahoma and South Carolina. States in the Southern U.S. are at high risk, according to the CDC.

In 2015, a 14-year-old star-athlete from Houston, Michael John Riley Jr. died after getting the infection while swimming in Sam Houston State Park.

In 2013, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl Kali Hardig survived after 22 days in the ICU. She received an experimental drug miltefosine which has been attributed to her survival. An 8 year old boy also survived the infection in 2013, but was left with permanent brain damage.

Twelve-year-old Zachary Reyna of Florida battled with the infection for more than 3 weeks. He was also given miltefosine which helped beat back the infection but his brain function did not return.

In 2014, 9 year old Kansas girl Hally Yust died of the infection. Hally was an avid water skier, according to news reports.

Naegleria fowleri, or "brain-eating amoeba", is an incredibly rare and deadly microorganism that can be found in warm freshwater.

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