Nevada Boy Dies From Rare Brain-Eating Amoeba After Visiting a Lake

State health officials say the boy developed symptoms a week after visiting Lake Mead

Lake Mead, Nevada
Lake Mead. Photo: Getty

A Nevada boy has died after being infected with a rare brain-eating amoeba, state health officials confirmed.

On Wednesday, the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) announced that the male was under the age of 18 and a resident of Clark County. He's believed to have been exposed after visiting Lake Mead — on the Arizona side of the lake — at the beginning of October. He began experiencing symptoms a week later.

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 four people in the U.S. out of 154 from 1962 to 2021 have survived the infection.

"My condolences go out to the family of this young man," Dr. Fermin Leguen, district health officer for SNHD, said in a release. "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."

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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.

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.

Although infection is rare (there are less than 8 infections per year), there is currently no way to reduce the number of amoebas in water. On its website, the CDC says 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 brain-eating amoeba infections is to refrain from participating in water-related activities in warm freshwater. Anyone who spends time in the water is urged to cover their nose or use nose clips.

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