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Brain-destroying amoeba infects Florida man

Published Jul 6th, 2020 3:53PM EDT
brain eating amoeba
Image: imageBROKER/Shutterstock

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  • A rare brain-eating amoeba infection has been recorded in Florida.
  • The infection is typically fatal and is rarely seen in the United States, where only 143 cases have ever been recorded. 
  • Health officials say to avoid lakes and ponds that are particularly warm and that are at a lower water level than they typically are.

Temperatures across the US are nice and toasty, which means there’s no better place to be than next to the ocean, a lake, or a swimming pool. The risks of heading to a public gathering spot like a crowded beach aside — wear your masks, please — Floridians now have another reason to be careful of where they decide to take a dip.

According to the Florida Department of Health, an incredibly rare amoeba has been detected in at least one individual who presumably contracted it while swimming. The bug is known to destroy brain tissue, and infection is rarely survivable.

In a new release posted to Twitter, Florida Health reports that a single individual has been confirmed to have an infection of the amoeba Naegleria fowleri. It’s not a pleasant ailment, and a person can become infected without even realizing it.

“One person contracted Naegleria fowleri in Hillsborough County,” the tweet reads. “Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic single-celled living amoeba. The amoeba can cause a rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal.”

The amoeba rarely affects humans, and only 37 cases of the infection have been recorded since as far back as 1962. However, health officials have a pretty good idea of the kinds of water it likes. Specifically, the amoeba can be found in warm freshwater, especially when water levels are low. Ponds and lakes that sit simmering in the sun for days or weeks are the perfect places to find the organism, and swimming in such water puts you at risk of contracting it.

As Florida Health explains, the infection usually begins when water containing the amoeba enters through a person’s nose. From there, the organism travels to the person’s brain where it does the most damage. As for how to avoid becoming infected, health officials have some practical advice including avoiding swimming in freshwater that is lower than usual and is particularly warm.

If you absolutely have to take a dip, do your best to avoid stirring up the material on the bottom of the lake or pond. Plug your nose when jumping into the water and do your best to avoid getting water into your nasal passages. The Florida Department of Health also reports that the amoeba can rarely be found in tap water, and that any water that is to be used to clean the sinuses — such as with a neti pot — should be boiled, distilled, or sterilized in some other way to mitigate the risk of infection.