(Media release from the Georgia Department of Public Health):
A Georgia resident has died from Naegleria fowleri infection, a rare infection which destroys brain tissue, causing brain swelling and usually death. The individual was likely infected while swimming in a freshwater lake or pond in Georgia.
Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba (single-celled living organism) that lives in soil and warm, freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds, and hot springs. Naegleria fowleri is not found in salt water, such as the ocean, and it is not found in properly treated drinking water and swimming pools.
Naegleria fowleri is commonly called the “brain-eating amoeba” because it can cause a brain infection, primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), when water containing the amoeba goes up the nose. It cannot infect people if swallowed and is not spread from person to person. Only about three people in the United States get infected each year, but these infections are usually fatal.
Symptoms of Naegleria fowleri infection typically start with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to stiff neck, seizures, and coma that can lead to death. Symptoms usually begin about five days after infection but can start within 1 to 12 days. Once symptoms start, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days.
The amoeba is naturally occurring, and there is no routine environmental test for Naegleria fowleri in bodies of water; and because it is very common in the environment, levels of the amoebas that naturally occur cannot be controlled. The location and number of amoebas in the water can vary over time within the same body of water.
Though the risk of infection is low, recreational water users should always assume there is a risk when they enter warm fresh water. If you choose to swim, you can reduce your risk of infection by limiting the amount of water that goes up the nose. Recommended precautions from the CDC include:
• Avoid jumping or diving into bodies of warm fresh water, especially during the summer.
• Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when in bodies of warm fresh water.
• Avoid putting your head under water in hot springs and other untreated geothermal waters.
• Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment in shallow, warm fresh water. The amoebae are more likely to live in sediment at the bottom of lakes, ponds, and rivers.
Prior to this newly confirmed case of Naegleria fowleri infection, there have been five other cases reported in Georgia since 1962.
For more information about Naegleria fowleri, visit the CDC website https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/index.html. For information about safe swimming, log on to https://dph.georgia.gov/health-topics/injury-prevention-program/safe-swimming.