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Brain-destroying amoeba infects person in Tampa Bay

Health leaders say the infections are very rare and effective prevention strategies will allow families to swim safely in Florida.

TAMPA, Fla. — An amoeba that can cause a rare infection that destroys the brain and is usually deadly has infected someone in the Tampa Bay area.

The Florida Department of Health on Friday confirmed one case in which a person was infected with Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic single-celled living amoeba.

The brain infections it can cause are called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), and they attack the brain tissue. The amoeba is often found in warm freshwater areas like lakes, rivers, ponds and canals, according to the health alert.

The health department explained infections can happen when contaminated water enters the body through the nose, allowing the amoeba to get inside and travel to the brain.

“Infections usually occur when temperatures increase for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels,” the health department said.

The peak season for this particular amoeba is between July and September.

“Though there are only 37 reported cases with exposure in Florida since 1962, DOH cautions those who swim and dive frequently in Florida's lakes, rivers and ponds during warm temperatures about the possible presence of Naegleria fowleri,” the health department wrote. “Adverse health effects on humans can be prevented by avoiding nasal contact with the waters since the amoeba enters through the nasal passages.”

The Hillsborough County Health Department recommends taking the following precautions:

  • Avoid water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater, hot springs and
    thermally polluted water such as water around power plants.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high
    water temperature and low water levels.
  • Hold the nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related
    activities in bodies of warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, or hot springs.
  • Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in
    water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

Health experts say exposure to the amoeba can also happen when using neti pots to rinse your sinuses of cold/allergy-related congestion or when conducting religious rituals with tap water. 

The health department urges people only to use boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or for performing religious activities.

If you experience any of the following symptoms after swimming in a warm body of water, health experts urge you to call a doctor immediately: headache, fever, nausea, disorientation, vomiting, stiff neck, seizures, loss of balance, or hallucinations.

“It is essential to seek medical attention right away, as the disease progresses rapidly after the start of symptoms,” the Hillsborough County Health Department wrote in an email.

Click here for more information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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