Naegleria fowleri is rare but almost always fatal.
Swimming in freshwater lakes and ponds is a beloved summer tradition for countless people, and when done responsibly, is usually a safe and enjoyable activity. With that said, there are always some potential dangers to consider when doing any sort of activity in nature, and some of those dangers come on a microbial level with dangerous amoeba.
Such was the case recently in Georgia when an individual lost their life as the result of getting an infection that likely occurred when swimming in freshwater. While this certainly doesn’t mean that no one should even venture into clean water to enjoy a swim, it is important to understand what happened and what the risks may be in various places.
The cause of death for this individual was a dangerous amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism that belongs to the phylum Percolozoa. It is characterized by its amoeboid shape, with a nucleus and several pseudopodia that it uses for movement and feeding. When this infection finds its way into a person, it can cause brain swelling and destroy brain tissue. In most cases, it is fatal. While it does not live in saltwater, the amoeba is commonly found in warm, fresh waters like lakes and ponds, in addition to soil.
If there is reassuring news to look at in this case, it is a rarity. Within the state of Georgia, there had only been five reported cases before this one in the last six decades. Over that same timeframe, a total of 154 cases in the entire country have been recorded. However, of those, just four victims managed to survive.
When someone starts to feel ill in the aftermath of spending time in freshwater, it’s unlikely that an amoeba infection is going to be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, this is an extremely rare event, and the symptoms can be similar to many other issues. Some of the symptoms that associated with Naegleria fowleri include fever, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. As it progresses, seizures, hallucinations, and coma can result. While treatments will be attempted, including antibiotics, they are rarely helpful.
Since the amoeba thrive in warm water, it makes sense that most of the cases of infection have been registered in the southern states of the country where warm weather is prevalent. The warmer weather makes the environment more welcoming to the amoeba, so the chances of infection – while still very rare – are higher. Also, as climate change progresses and the northern states get warmer, it’s possible that these infections will become more common in those locations, as well.
Preventing Naegleria fowleri infections primarily involves avoiding exposure, which can be achieved by refraining from activities that involve warm freshwater. Additionally, using nose clips can prevent amoeba from migrating through the nasal passages, which is a primary source of entry into the body. As lakes, ponds, and other natural sources of freshwater are not the only issue, proper maintenance of swimming pools and hot tubs is also crucial. Ensuring proper chemicals are used to cleanse these areas regularly will help limit bacteria build up and the development of amoeba.