Water Supply Worries

Naegleria fowleri ameba found in Louisiana water supply and tied to one death

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Health officials in Louisiana are warning residents about a rare but serious threat — a dangerous ameba in the water supply.

According to state health authorities, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the presence of Naegleria fowleri in the water supply of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, but when they do occur, they are very serious.

Residents are being urged to take steps to prevent infection with the ameba, including avoiding getting water in the nose. However, the water is reportedly safe to drink.

"Keep your swimming pool properly maintained and disinfected."

According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), the CDC tests came after a child who had visited St. Bernard, a parish on Louisiana's southern coast, became ill with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and passed away.

CDC tested samples taken from the parish's water supply and confirmed that Naegleria fowleri was found in four locations.

According to CDC, Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism that is usually found in water. The ameba can infect humans when it enters the body through the nose and travels to the brain.

Symptoms may include fever, headache, nausea or vomiting before developing into stiff neck, confusion, balance problems, hallucinations and seizures. The infection attacks the tissue of the brain, causing swelling and inflammation. The infection can be deadly, and CDC reports that the fatality rate is over 99 percent.

"After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about 5 days," said CDC.

However, CDC also noted that Naegleria fowleri infections are very rare. During the years spanning from 2003 to 2012, only 31 US Naegleria fowleri infections were reported to CDC.

Louisiana DHH reported that, in the state of Louisiana, three deaths have been tied to Naegleria fowleri in the water since 2011. These deaths included the case that spurred this investigation and two additional deaths that occurred in 2011.

In a Louisiana DHH news release, State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry explained that while the news isn't cause for panic, it does call for the public to take steps to protect themselves.

"The water is safe to drink and there are basic precautions that families can take — such as chlorinating their pools and avoiding getting water in their noses — to protect themselves, though infection from this ameba is very rare," said Guidry.

St. Bernard Parish is also taking precautions to protect the public, like using additional chlorine in the water system, which is known to kill the ameba.

"[R]un bath and shower taps and hoses for 5 minutes before use to flush out the pipes," recommended DHH. "This is most important the first time you use the tap after the water utility raises the disinfectant level."

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 16, 2013
Last Updated:
September 16, 2013