A brain-eating bacteria has reportedly killed a man in North Carolina after swimming at Fantasy Lake Water Park in Cumberland County July 12, according to the state’s health department. Though, life-threatening, infections from the bacteria are considered rare.
Samples sent to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the person’s illness was caused by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in warm freshwater.
Laboratory testing confirmed the man, identified by local media as Eddie Gray, contracted the brain-eating amoeba infection after swimming at Fantasy Lake Water Park in Cumberland County earlier this month, according to officials with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Cumberland County Department of Public Health.
“Our sympathies are with the family and loved ones,” said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D. “People should be aware that this organism is present in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs across North Carolina, so be mindful as you swim or enjoy water sports.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe the brain-eating bacteria or Naegleria is an amoeba (a single-celled living organism) commonly found in warm freshwater—typically in lakes, rivers, and hot springs—and soil. While only one species (type) of Naegleria infects people, Naegleria fowleri.
It infects people when it is able to enter the body through the nose, usually when people go out swimming. The Naegleria fowleri amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain where it destroys the brain tissue.
In very rare instances, Naegleria infections have been found also to occur when contaminated water from other sources such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or contaminated tap water enters the nose.
The amoeba grows best at higher temperatures up to 115°F (46°C) and can survive for short periods at higher temperatures. Infection from the bacteria usually occurs during the summer months of July, August, and September; and are more likely to occur in southern-tier states, but can also occur in other more northern states.
Symptoms of infection start about 5 days (range 1 to 9 days) after contracting the bacteria. It may include headaches, fever, nausea, or vomiting. Later, symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations. After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about 5 days (range 1 to 12 days).
The fatality rate of the brain-eating bacteria is over 97% with only 4 people out of 145 known infected individuals in the United States from 1962 to 2018 have survived. Notably, North Carolina had five cases during that time period.
In 2016, an Ohio teen who visited the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte died after contracting the brain-eating amoeba. The center has since made significant upgrades to its filtration system to keep patrons safe.
Notably, people cannot contract the bacteria by drinking contaminated water. The brain-eating bacteria also has not been found to spread via water vapor or aerosol droplets such as shower mist or vapor from a humidifier.
However, engaging in extreme water sports can be fatal if the water is forced up the nose during water activities like diving or water-skiing, officials said.
In light of the recent news, the brain-eating bacteria is no reason to cause hysteria. Particularly, Naegleria fowleri is of common occurrence in warm bodies of water, but infections are rare.
In the 10 years from 2009 to 2018, 34 infections were reported in the U.S. Of those cases, 30 people were infected by recreational water, 3 people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and 1 person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide.
While there is no way to eliminate the amoeba from freshwater lakes, health officials said they are working with the water park on how to educate the public about Naegleria fowleri.
Health officials recommended that swimmers in warm freshwater areas hold their noses shut or use nose clips to limit the amount of water going up against their noses; avoid water-related activities when water temperatures are high, and water levels are low and avoid digging or stirring sediment while participating in water-related activities.
Furthermore, local health officials are working with Fantasy Lake Water Park on how to take precautions in the future.