Brain Eating Bug in Lakes Kills Swimmers. Read Which Lakes to Avoid

Naegleria fowleriAn amoeba called Naegleria Fowleri living in warm lakes this summer enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds on your brain until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it has killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases in the future.

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

According to the CDC, the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri killed 23 people in the United States from 1995 to 2004. This year health officials noticed a spike with six cases – three in Florida, two in Texas, and one in Arizona. The CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since its discovery in Australia in the 1960s.

In Arizona, David Evans said nobody knew his son, Aaron, was infected with the amoeba until after the 14-year-old died on Sept. 17. At first, the teen seemed to be suffering from nothing more than a headache.

“We didn’t know,” Evans said. “And here I am: I come home and I’m burying him.”

After doing more tests, doctors said Aaron probably picked up the amoeba a week before while swimming in the balmy shallows of Lake Havasu, a popular man-made lake on the Colorado River between Arizona and California.

Though infections tend to be found in southern states, Naegleria lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.

Beach said people become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom. If someone allows water to shoot up the nose – say, by doing a somersault in chest-deep water – the amoeba can latch onto the olfactory nerve.

The amoeba destroys tissue as it makes its way up into the brain, where it continues the damage, “basically feeding on the brain cells,” Beach said.

People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches, and fevers. In the later stages, they’ll show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, he said.

Once infected, most people have little chance of survival. Some drugs have stopped the amoeba in lab experiments, but people who have been attacked rarely survive, Beach said.

“Usually, from initial exposure it’s fatal within two weeks,” he said.

Researchers still have much to learn about Naegleria. They don’t know why, for example, children are more likely to be infected, and boys are more often victims than girls.

“Boys tend to have more boisterous activities [in water], but we’re not clear,” Beach said.

In central Florida, authorities started a telephone hot line advising people to avoid warm, standing water and areas with algae blooms. Texas health officials also have issued warnings.

People “seem to think that everything can be made safe, including any river, any creek, but that’s just not the case,” said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Officials in the town of Lake Havasu City are discussing whether to take action. “Some folks think we should be putting up signs. Some people think we should close the lake,” city spokesman Charlie Cassens said.

Beach cautioned that people shouldn’t panic about the dangers of the brain-eating bug. Cases are still extremely rare considering the number of people swimming in lakes.

The easiest way to prevent infection, Beach said, is to use nose clips when swimming or diving in fresh water.

3 thoughts on “Brain Eating Bug in Lakes Kills Swimmers. Read Which Lakes to Avoid

  1. While this is considered “extreley rare”, with only 23 people listed as dying from 1995 to 2004, I would suggest that this goes undiagnosed in many more deaths. I had a son die suddenly while in Argentina six years ago. The autopsy & toxoligy reports all came back negative. He was a healthy 20 year old boy! We only pieced this together fairly recently as a possible cause of death and will never know for sure. December is summertime in Argentina which is when this occured. He had declared swimmming in a local river, and complained of headaches just days prior to his death. Leading up to his death he had mentioned talking with a ghost and seeing a snake in the water pipe. We had no idea what any of this meant at the time, but have come to realize that he more than likely was hallucinating the last day or two prior to his death. All symptoms and the time frame of it all surely points to this Naegleria Fowleri bacteria, but was not diaonosed as such. How many other times throughout the years could this have gone undetected?

  2. I think everyone is swimming at their own risk. People know it can kill them. If their stupid enough to get in the water, then it’s their own fault. The city should do their part and just close down the damn lakes if their killing people!

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