The brain-eating amoeba sounds scary, but here's what you need to know about the infection

By Rose Minutaglio
June 23, 2016 06:15 PM
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty

An Ohio teen’s recent death from a brain-eating amoeba she contracted at an American water park has caused nation-wide panic about the deadly organism that can be found lurking in warm waters across the country.

Lauren Setiz, 18, visited the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her church youth group on June 8 for a day of fun in the sun. The teen returned home on June 11, but died suddenly on June 19. In a statement to PEOPLE, the Public Health Department in Ohio confirmed she died from the brain-eating amoeba. (It has not been confirmed if Setiz contracted the amoeba from the U.S. National Whitewater Center.)

The one-celled microscopic organism responsible for Setiz’s untimely death resides in fresh waters with warm temperatures. While drinking it is not harmful, if water containing brain-eating amoeba goes up a person’s nose it will most likely result in death.

As we approach the warmer months of July and August, here is everything you need to know about the brain-eating amoeba that has water-lovers second guessing their summer plans.

Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as brain-eating amoeba, is a single-celled living organism that can cause a rare and almost always fatal infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). According to a CDC report, only three people in the U.S. out of 138 from 1962 until 2015 have survived the infection.

 

Brain-eating amoeba is most commonly found in warm fresh waters such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. It also resides in poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools, staying in these habitats to feed on bacteria. “Amoeba is naturally occurring, so it could be present in any body of fresh water,” Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokeswoman Mirna Chamorro tells PEOPLE. The majority of infections from amoeba have occurred in “15 southern-tier states, with more than half of all infections occurring in Texas and Florida,” according to the CDC. Naegleria is not found in salt water.

 

Symptoms of brain-eating amoeba generally start one to nine days after nasal exposure and many people die within 18 days of showing symptoms, according to the CDC. These include severe headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting in the first stage and stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations and a coma in the second stage. PAM, the infection caused from the amoeba, is ultimately hard to detect though, because of the rapid progression of the disease. Diagnosis is typically made postmortem.

 

The CDC does not recommend testing bodies of water for brain-eating amoeba, because it is naturally occurring, which means “there is no established relationship between detection or concentration of naegleria fowleri and risk of infection.” Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokeswoman Mirna Chamorro says testing water doesn’t give people all of the information they need to make an informed decision before swimming in a body of water. “It might give a false sense of security,” Chamorro tells PEOPLE. “There can be amoeba on one side of a lake, but not the other. It can also be found in sediment.” She adds, “Signs warning of amoeba aren’t usually placed near bodies of water, because of this.”

 

Although infection is rare (there are 0-8 infections per year), there is currently no method to reduce the number of amoebas in water. On their website, the CDC says that because of this, it is “unclear how a standard might be set to protect human health and how public health officials would measure and enforce such a standard.” The only guaranteed way to avoid a brain-eating amoeba infections is to refrain from participating in water-related activities in warm freshwater. “Anyone that enjoys time in a body of water should cover their nose before they go in or use nose clips,” says Chamorro. “As long as they don’t put their head under water, they are okay.”

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