Health Care

4 things to know about ‘brain-eating amoeba’ found in Lowcountry waters

Help doctors diagnose brain-eating amoeba; tell them you went swimming

Terry C. Dixon, MD, PhD – Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital - Pediatrics, discusses diagnosing and treating Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM) on Aug. 4, 2016.
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Terry C. Dixon, MD, PhD – Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital - Pediatrics, discusses diagnosing and treating Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM) on Aug. 4, 2016.

Eleven-year-old Hannah Collins of Beaufort is believed to have contracted an infection from a brain-eating amoeba — Naegleria fowleri — after swimming in the Edisto River in Charleston County on July 24, state officials say.

An infection such as this, which is usually fatal, is very rare, according to state epidemiologist Linda Bell, of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Here are four things to know about the amoeba, and the infection it causes.

Again, infection is rare

The last infection in South Carolina occurred in July 2012, according to DHEC spokesperson Jim Beasley. It claimed the life of a child from Sumter.

There have been just 37 infections in the United States from 2006 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The vast majority of those cases — 33 people — “were infected by contaminated recreational water,” according to the CDC.

Out of 138 people infected in the U.S. between 1962 and 2015, only three have survived, the CDC said.

Terry C. Dixon, MD, PhD – Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital - Pediatrics, discusses diagnosing and treating Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM) on Aug. 4, 2016.

“We know from experience that individuals who have been infected have been swimming with other individuals who had the same exposure,” Bell said. “It’s probably not a really easy thing for this organism to invade the tissue that lines the nasal cavity and get into the brain.”

You can take steps to prevent it

Use a nose plug, or pinch your nose when you dive into or go under water.

“People should avoid being submerged in fresh, warm water sources in a way that allows those organisms to get into their nose,” Bell said. “Because that’s how the organism can be introduced.”

Jeremy Lewis of Midlothian, Texas, who in 2010 lost his 7-year-old son Kyle to Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM) - known colloquially as "brain-eating amoeba" - spoke to The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette on Thursday, August 4, 2016, abo

Most recent cases have been found in children and young adults — and mostly males — Bell said. Why? Because those are the folks “that typically dive into the water and do underwater somersaults” or, in other words, are “swimming aggressively,” she said.

Because the amoeba is tiny, you can’t see it in the water, she said. There’s no way, with the naked eye, to tell if it’s there.

You can’t become infected by drinking contaminated water.

Symptoms are severe

Symptoms of primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the disease caused by the amoeba, can resemble those of bacterial meningitis, which lowers the chances of initially diagnosing the disease, according to the CDC.

Initially, infected persons have a severe frontal headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. Later stage symptoms include a stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations and coma, according to the agency.

Some of those symptoms might almost sound commonplace, but they’re not.

“This is a very severe headache that can be associated with an altered level of consciousness,” Bell said. “This is not your typical headache.”

As for the stiff neck, Bell said it would be “so severe that you can’t bend your head forward and touch your chin to your chest without causing severe pain.”

Not found in salt water

“The organism destroys brain tissue and the tissue lining the brains,” Bell said. “Amoebic infections are very severe because of the tissue destruction, and options for treatment are very limited.”

The amoeba is found worldwide, Bell said, reiterating infection is rare.

“I don’t believe it survives in salt water,” Bell said.

The CDC agrees.

Naegleria is not found in salt water, like the ocean.”

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

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