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Brazos River Authority warns of rare but deadly amoeba found in freshwater

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Posted at 7:54 PM, Jun 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-04 20:56:29-04

As the weather heats up and more Texans look for the nearest lake or river, the Brazos River Authority is warning swimmers of a rare but deadly amoeba.

The water-born amoeba Naegleria fowleri resides in all lakes, streams, rivers and ponds in Texas. It is found in almost all untreated, fresh surface water and in soil. Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, or PAM, is a disease caused by the amoeba.

The amoeba thrives in freshwater that is warmer than 80 degrees and stagnant or slow-moving. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, most PAM infections happen with the temperatures are hot and water levels are low.

The Brazos River Authority says PAM only infects people when water containing the amoeba enters through the nose, usually from diving or jumping into freshwater. Once in the nose, the amoeba travels up and makes its way into the brain along the olfactory nerve, destroying brain tissue.

The infection cannot be spread from person to person or by drinking contaminated water.

The authority says those who have contracted the disease will usually start showing symptoms about 5 days after the infection. Early symptoms include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting, causing many to mistake it for the flu or bacterial meningitis.

The infection will then progress to loss of balance, a stiff neck, seizures and hallucinations. The disease moves quickly and can cause death within two weeks of the initial infection.

The Brazos County River Authority is encouraging anyone who starts showing symptoms after getting water up the nose to get checked by a medical professional immediately. Swimmers should also tell medical professionals they may have been exposed to the amoeba by having freshwater forced up the nose.

Specific tests are required to diagnose the infection in time.

The authority says the disease is rare, however identified cases thus far have almost always been fatal and usually occur during the summer months. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only four people in the U.S. out of 145 have survived the infection from 1962 to 2018.

The Brazos River Authority says it does not test for the Naegleria fowleri amoeba because it is common in all surface water throughout the world. The authority is encouraging Texans and those who live in warmer-weather states should assume there is a risk when entering all warm freshwater bodies.

Thirty three PAM cases have been reported to Texas state officials from 1979 to 2017.

To protect yourself:

  • Use nose clips or hold your nose while jumping into the water
  • Try to avoid stirring up underwater sediment
  • Avoid water activities in bodies of warm freshwater with low water levels
  • Avoid stagnant or polluted water
  • Take "No Swimming" signs seriously

The authority says if water does go up your nose while swimming, monitor yourself for flu-like symptoms. If you do start showing symptoms, go to a medical professional and tell them of your recent activities.

For more information about PAM, please click here or contact the Texas Department of State Health Services Public Information Office at (512) 458-7400.