(WJW) – As temperatures heat up, many of us will be headed to the water to cool off. However, there’s a deadly amoeba that lives in freshwater and thrives during the summer months.
But is it something you need to worry about while swimming in Ohio?
Naegleria fowleri, commonly called “brain-eating amoeba,” is rare – there are only about 3 cases per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it’s almost always fatal.
How can you get it?
“They like to grow in water,” Dr. Christine Alexander, chair of family medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center, told FOX 8 in a previous interview. “Especially warm water.”
Naegleria fowleri infects people in only one way: when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose, according to the CDC.
The amoeba then makes a beeline for the brain.
Naegleria fowleri is naturally found in warm freshwater environments such as lakes and rivers, or hot springs, but can also be found in water discharge from industrial or power plants, geothermal well water, poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools, water heaters, and soil, according to CDC data on all confirmed cases.
People who become infected develop a condition called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
“This is not like a bacterial infection which we have antibiotics or a viral infection where we have antivirals,” Dr. Alexander said. “We don’t have medicine to get rid of the amoeba.”
Where is it found?
Naegleria fowleri is typically found in warm water with temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the CDC says.
According to the Cleveland Department of Public Health, Naegleria fowleri grows best in high temperatures of up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Though Lake Erie is a freshwater environment, the lake rarely gets to a high enough temperature to create a viable growth environment for the amoeba, and it’s never been observed there, according to CDPH.
Lake Erie water temperatures have reached as high as 85 degrees, however, summertime water temperatures usually stay in the 70s and rarely gets above 75 degrees, CDPH says.
In hot sunny weather, chlorine can break down and be less effective at splash pads and pools, according to CDPH.
Almost half of all infections ever documented originated in Florida and Texas. It’s been found as far north as Minnesota. Cases have been documented in nearly half of all U.S. states.
Texas has the most cases overall, with 39. Florida is right behind at 37. California is the only other state with cases in the double digits.
To this date, no one has ever gotten infected in Ohio. However, it has claimed victims who lived in Ohio and were traveling.
See the cases here.
Ohio teen dies
An 18-year-old girl from Westerville, Ohio died from an infection caused by Naegleria fowleri in 2016.
Lauren Seitz went whitewater rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, during a church trip, where she’s believed to have contracted the deadly amoeba.
“They had one day of recreation where they stopped at the U.S. Whitewater Center and went whitewater rafting and they had a grand day,” Senior Pastor Jim Wilson told FOX 8 sister station WCMH at the time.
When she returned to Ohio, she began to experience symptoms such as headaches, fever, vomiting and neck stiffness. She was admitted to the hospital and died only a few days later.
“We will deeply miss her, but we were so blessed by her presence and her gifts that she just shared in a beautiful way. She was a special person.”
The CDC later said that levels of the brain-eating amoeba were “unusually high” in water samples taken from the U.S. National Whitewater Center and were likely caused by the failure of the water sanitation system.
Is anyone testing for it?
Naegleria fowleri is not something health officials actively test for, according to CDPH.
“In terms of testing, it would generally only be tested if it was potentially linked to a case,” the health department said.
What are the symptoms?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the signs and symptoms of primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) come on suddenly and are severe at the start, including:
- High fever
- Very painful headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Symptoms like those of meningitis, including a stiff neck and extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Mental confusion
In a response to a media inquiry, the Ohio Department of Health said the following:
“The Ohio Department of Health (ODH), as always, recommends people follow general safe swimming practices; this includes preventing water from forcefully entering the nasal cavity, which can reduce the possibility of infection.”