An amoeba ate the brain of a boy in Nebraska: what this danger is about

La infección ocurre solo cuando el agua que contiene la ameba ingresa a la nariz.

The infection occurs only when the water containing the amoeba enters the nose.

Photo: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported that a Nebraska boy died from a suspected Naegleria fowleri, or brain-eating amoeba, infection while swimming in the Elkhorn River near Omaha.

The Douglas County Health Department said Wednesday that the boy died this week and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are conducting more tests to confirm the rare infection.

If confirmed, this would be the first known death from a brain-eating amoeba in state history.

“We can only imagine the devastation this family must be feeling, and our deepest condolences go out to them,” Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse said in a statement Wednesday. “We can honor this child’s memory by educating ourselves about the risk and then taking steps to prevent infection.”

Brain-eating amoebas in the United States

According to the Nebraska Department of Health, Naegleria fowleri is a type of amoeba that can be found throughout the United States, particularly in the southern states, in warm freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers.

“Infections generally occur later in the summer, in warmer waters with slower flow, in July, August and September. Cases are most commonly identified in southern states, but more recently have been identified further north,” Nebraska State Epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Donahue said in a statement.

When water containing the amoeba enters the nose and reaches the brain, primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (MAP), an “extremely rare but almost always fatal” brain infection, says the state agency.

The CDC recommendation on the best way to avoid this type of infection is avoid swimming and other activities in warm fresh water, if you go underwater, hold your nose or avoid putting your head in the water altogether.

Infections will not occur in pools that have been properly cleaned and disinfected. Naegleria fowleri is also not spread from person to person or by drinking contaminated water: the infection occurs only when water containing amoeba enters the nose.

According to the CDC, there have been about 154 known MAP infections caused by Naegleria fowleri in the US between 1962 and 2021 with only four of those infected surviving.

Symptoms of Naegleria fowleri infection may start with fever, nausea and headaches, according to the CDC. That can progress to stiff neck, seizures, hallucinations, and coma.

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