Deadly amoeba contaminates drinking water in Louisiana
Researchers assure public that risk of infection is minute
A single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, is being blamed fro the death of a four-year-old girl last month in St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. Described as being about a tenth the width of a human hair, it has been incorrectly described as a "brain eating" microbe. The microbe does create a deleterious immune reaction - but scientists say that the risk of infection is slight.
It's actually not that easy to get infected. Drinking the water actually poses no risk. The presence of such a deadly microbe, however, is reason for concern.
"This is the first time that it has been found in the drinking water in the United States," Louisiana state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard says. And the United States has not seen the last of the microbe, he says. Health officials are now trying to pin down the cause of previously unexplained encephalitis cases.
About 40 percent of cases of this dangerous brain inflammation have no known cause. "Five years ago, we would never have known that this recent case was caused by the amoeba," Ratard says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scrupulous when it comes to testing local water supplies whenever amoebic encephalitis is discovered, in order to discover its origins.
Two Louisiana residents, one a 20-year-old man from St. Bernard Parish died of amoebic encephalitis in 2011 after using tap water to rinse their nasal passages, using a popular device called a neti pot. Health officials assumed that contaminated tap water was the source of the infection.
The amoeba infected the brains of two other U.S. Children this past summer: a 12-year-old Florida boy, who died, and a 12-year-old Arkansas girl, who survived. She may be one of only three known to survive the infection in the United States.
These deaths may not be quite as rare as health officials used to think. "We're going to see more cases," Ratard says. Instead of three to five cases of amoebic encephalitis per year across the nation, "maybe we'll go to 10 a year," he says. "I don't expect we'll have a hundred."
Naegleria fowleri is only dangerous when it gains entry into the brain. It does that when water containing the amoeba gets inhaled very deeply, into the area where the roof of the nasal passages meets the floor of the brain.
"To get infected, the amoeba has to get to the ceiling of your nose - way, way up there," Ratard says. "At the top of the nose you have a little paper-thin plate made of bone with a bunch of holes, a little bit like a mosquito net. The holes are for the olfactory nerve. So the amoeba is crawling up the nerve and gets into the brain."
Therefore, drinking amoeba-contaminated water poses no risk, as the single-celled organisms can't survive in stomach acid. Normal bathing or showering isn't a risk because even if tap water is contaminated, it doesn't penetrate into the deepest nasal passages.
The recent deaths offer proof that humans live in a world of potentially lethal cells, which rarely strike out and kill.
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