A brain-eating amoeba kills a boy in US. Here's what you need to know about the disease

The disease often results in death five days after symptoms appear.
Nergis Firtina
Shelled amoeba micrograph
Shelled amoeba micrograph

NNehring/iStock 

Two days ago, Southern Nevada Health District published a statement saying that a Clark County resident under the age of 18 died. This happened because Naegleria fowleri, also known as a brain-eating amoeba, caused an infection that the boy was exposed to at Lake Mead in Arizona.

“My condolences go out to the family of this young man,” said Dr. Fermin Leguen, District Health Officer for the Health District. “While I want to reassure the public that this type of infection is an extremely rare occurrence, I know this brings no comfort to his family and friends at this time.”

As reported in The Washington Post, this would be the first report of a brain-eating amoeba in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is Nevada's second fatality caused by the brain-eating amoeba.

What is Naegleria fowleri?

"Naegleria fowleri is commonly found in bodies of warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, and geothermal water, such as hot springs. The amoeba infects people by entering the body through the nose and traveling to the brain. It cannot infect people if swallowed and is not spread from person to person. The infection is extremely rare and almost always fatal," says the Southern Nevada Health District.

Headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting are the early signs of the condition. The disease often results in death five days after symptoms appear.

Naegleria fowleri is a naturally occurring amoeba and there is no regular test for it. Although the risk is modest, recreational water users should always consider there is a risk when they enter warm fresh water. Previous water testing has indicated that it is frequently detected in freshwater areas.

“The location and number of amoebae in the water can vary over time within the same lake or river, which means posting signs can create misconceptions,” she said. “If there are no signs people may think there is no risk, or if there are signs, they may think the risk is limited to the area where the sign is posted,” told Jennifer Sizemore, the chief communications officer at the Southern Nevada Health District, to The Washington Post.

As per the data of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 154 instances were documented in the U.S. between 1962 and 2021. Only four individuals survived it.

Protect yourself from the Naegleria fowleri

According to the Southern Nevada Health District, naegleria fowleri is a naturally occurring amoeba, and there is no regular test for it. Although the risk is modest, recreational water users should always consider there is a risk when they enter warm fresh water. Previous water testing has indicated that it is frequently detected in freshwater areas. The following are some precautions that the CDC advises:

  • Avoid jumping or diving into bodies of warm freshwater, 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 underwater in hot springs and other untreated geothermal waters.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment in shallow warm fresh water.
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