LAS VEGAS — The death of a Las Vegas-area teen from a rare brain-eating amoeba that investigators believe was exposed to in the warm waters of Lake Mead should spark caution, not panic, among people in freshwater lakes, rivers and springs, according to experts said Friday.
“It gets people’s attention because of the name,” former public health epidemiologist Brian Lapus said of the naturally occurring organism, officially called Naegleria fowleri but always called the brain-eating amoeba. “But it is a very rare disease.”
Lapus, who teaches at the University of Nevada School of Public Health in Las Vegas, said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted only 154 cases of amoeba infection and death in the United States since 1962. Nearly half of those cases have been in Texas and Florida. Only one was reported in Nevada before this week.
“I wouldn’t say there’s an alarm going off for this,” Labus said. “People need to be smart about it when they are in places where this rare amoeba actually lives.” He said the organism is found in waters ranging from 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) to 115 degrees (46 degrees Celsius).
The Southern Nevada Health District did not identify the teen who died, but said he may have been exposed to the microorganism during the Sept. 30 weekend in the Kingman Wash area on the Arizona side of the Colorado River reservoir behind the Hoover Dam. The district announced the case on Wednesday, after confirmation of the cause from the CDC.
The area and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which overlooks the lake and the Colorado River, note that the amoeba infects people only by entering the nose and migrating into the brain. It is almost always fatal.
“It cannot infect people if swallowed, nor is it transmitted from person to person,” said news releases from the two agencies. Both advised people to avoid jumping or diving in warm bodies of water, especially during the summer, and to keep the head above water in hot springs or other “untreated geothermal water” that collects in pocket valleys in the vast recreation area.
“It’s 97% fatal but 99% preventable,” said Dennis Kyle, professor of infectious diseases and cell biology and director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Diseases at the University of Georgia. “You can protect yourself by not jumping in water that reaches your nose, or using nose plugs.”
The amoeba causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection similar to symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis that initially include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting – then progresses to stiff neck, seizures and coma that can lead to death.
Symptoms can begin 1 to 12 days after exposure, and death usually occurs within about five days.
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There is no known effective treatment, and Kyle said the diagnosis almost always comes too late.
Kyle, who has studied the organism for decades, said the data don’t immediately suggest that the waters pushed by climate change affected the amoeba. He said he knew of fewer than four cases nationwide.
A survey of news reports found cases in Northern California, Nebraska, and Iowa. The CDC map showed the most cases over the past 60 years in the southern US states, led by 39 in Texas and 37 in Florida.
“I think this year is kind of an average year for cases,” Kyle said. “But this was a very warm summer. The key point is that warmer weather tends to generate more amoeba in the environment.”
Kyle noted that there are not many labs that regularly identify an organism. He said AdventHealth Central Florida recently joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with programs capable of identifying them.
Written by Ken Ritter, The Associated Press.
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