CDC confirms South Carolina patient has rare ‘brain-eating’ amoeba

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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. — A patient in South Carolina has tested positive for Naegleria fowleri, the so-called “brain-eating amoeba,” The Centers for Disease Control confirmed in a statement.

Health officials think the patient may have been exposed during a July 24 swim at Martin’s Landing in the Edisto River, which runs through the southeast portion of the state through the Ernest F. Hollings Ace Basin National Wildlife park.

The amoeba occurs naturally and is “all around us and is present in many warm water lakes, rivers and streams, but infection in humans is very rare,” Linda Bell, M.D. and state epidemiologist told WISTV.

It’s so rare, in fact, that there have been less than 40 cases in the past 10 years in the United States, Bell said. While rare, it is extremely deadly. In August of 2015, a girl died days after a trip to Oklahoma’s Lake Murray.

Health officials say the free-living organism travels up the nose and into the brain. Symptoms typically start one to nine days after it is contracted.

“They start off usually with a high fever then nausea and vomiting, and then later develop altered mental status and even coma,” according to Joli Stone, an epidemiologist.

WISTV reports that a Florida-based company Profounda rushed drug used to fight the amoeba overnight to the Charleston hospital.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control issued the following statement:

Lab tests have confirmed that a South Carolina resident has contracted an extremely rare infection of the brain, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) announced today.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed for us today that this individual was exposed to the organism Naegleria fowleri,” said Linda Bell, M.D. and state epidemiologist. “The exposure is thought to have occurred on July 24 while the individual was swimming near Martin’s Landing on the Edisto River in Charleston County. This organism occurs naturally and is all around us and is present in many warm water lakes, rivers and streams, but infection in humans is very rare. In fact, there have been fewer than 40 cases reported nationwide in the past ten years.”

Dr. Bell said that infection from Naegleria fowleri is extremely difficult to contract, requiring very specific circumstances.

“First, you must be swimming in water in which the amoeba is present,” she said. “Second, you must jump into the amoeba-containing water feet-first, allowing the water to go up your nose with enough force that the amoeba can make its way to the brain. Most commonly, exposure results in the amoeba dying before causing infection.

“You should avoid swimming or jumping into bodies of fresh water when the water is warm and the water levels are low. Also, you should either hold your nose or use a nose plug. You cannot be infected by merely drinking water containing the ameba,” Dr. Bell said.

The best way to avoid Naegleria fowleri is through prevention:

    • Avoid water-related activities in warm, untreated, or poorly treated water.
    • Hold your nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities.
    • Avoid digging in or stirring up sediment surrounding warm, fresh water.

Salt water, like the ocean, does not contain Naegleria fowleri. For more information about Naegleria fowleri, visit the DHEC or CDC websites.
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