St. Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, is warning residents of the presence of a potentially deadly amoeba in the water supply.
Health officials announced the discovery of the amoeba on Wednesday. Naegleria fowleri was discovered in the St. Bernard Parish Water System. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the amoeba has been detected in the tap water – it was discovered in 2013.
While the risk of infection is extremely low, Louisiana has been hit infections from the amoeba in recent years, resulting in three deaths. In 2013, a 4-year old boy’s death in St. Bernard Parish was linked to Naegleria fowleri. Health officials in St. Bernard Parish immediately flushed the water supply with chlorine, which has been shown to kill amoeba.
Officials are planning a 60-day chlorine burn to rid the system of the amoeba. While safe to drink, officials are urging precautions against getting the water into your nasal cavity.
How rare are infections? From 2005 to 2014, 35 cases were reported in the United States. Swimming in contaminated water accounted for the majority of the cases (31), three from nasal irrigation (neti pots, sinus rinses, etc.) and one from tap water used on a backyard slide.
35 cases reported in 10 years. You don’t have to change your vacation plans or alter your lifestyle. Instead, education is key. And, follow alerts and recommendations if local public health officials find contaminated areas (in this case, the water supply).
The amoeba in question causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection that causes the destruction of brain tissue. It’s this destruction that gets the headlines of a brain-eating amoeba.
It is fatal, and symptoms in the early stages will resemble that of bacterial meningitis. Early symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck.
Later symptoms of primary amebic meningoencephalitis include confusion, coordination issues, seizures and hallucinations. If you have been in warm waters and start seeing these symptoms, immediately go to the emergency room. If infected, a person can die within one to twelve days.
Naegleria fowleri Precautions
The St. Bernard Parish has told people the water is safe to drink but is urging residents take certain precautions. Using simple CDC precautions, Parish officials have issued the following guidelines:
DO NOT allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose when bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming in small hard plastic/blow-up pools.
DO NOT jump into or put your head under bathing water (bathtubs, small hard plastic/blow-up pools); walk or lower yourself in.
DO NOT allow children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers, as they may accidentally squirt water up their nose. Avoid slip-n-slides or other activities where it is difficult to prevent water going up the nose.
DO run bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes. This is most important the first time you use the tap after the water utility raises the disinfectant level.
DO keep small hard plastic/blow-up pools clean by emptying, scrubbing and allowing them to dry after each use.
DO use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or performing ritual ablutions.
All precautions should be followed until the public health officials confirm the amoeba is no longer detected in the water supply.
Officials stress they test the water supply every year as temperatures rise. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is waiting on the results for twelve other water systems located in the state.
Residents across the South and really the entire country should learn about Naegleria fowleri . It’s not confined to Louisiana. Be aware of the water you swim in (the amoeba likes water temperatures above 100 degrees) and a good tip is to always sterilize the water you use for sinus rinses like neti pots. The sinus rinse sterilization is a good idea period to prevent a host of infections.
The rareness of the infection doesn’t discount the severity of it. You don’t have to change your life, but a general awareness of the amoeba and its potential infection is a good thing for the public.
**Updated to better reflect the low rate of occurrence of infections and further information about primary amebic meningoencephalitis.**