Concerns increase over swimming and brain-eating parasites

Published: Jul. 30, 2019 at 7:56 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Summertime increases concerns about swimmers potentially inhaling freshwater filled with life-threatening parasites known as brain-eating amoebas.

Medical professionals say swimmers should wear nose clips when swimming in bodies of freshwater or hold their noses.

Jeffery Oliver, who was taking his boat out on Lake Pontchartrain on Tuesday (July 30), does not need any convincing.

"That would keep me out the water if somebody told me that something could eat my brain,” said Oliver.

Dr. James Diaz, Program Director of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at LSU Health in New Orleans is well-versed on the topic.

"The case fatality rate is very high. Nine out of 10 people are going to die,” Diaz said.

Recently, a man died from a brain-eating amoeba after swimming in a man-made lake at a North Carolina water park.

The federal Centers for Disease Control confirmed his death was caused by Naegleria fowleri, a life-threatening amoeba.

Diaz used a colorful graphic to show how the parasite works its way from the nose into the brain.

"This is the life-cycle of the organism and the name of the brain-eating amoeba, it's real name is called Naegleria fowleri and the disease it causes is called PAM, or Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis,” said Diaz.

He said hot summers exacerbate the problem.

"It's very hard to diagnose, so the history is very important. A history of swimming in a warm, freshwater lake or river, particularly late in the summer like now when the water level is low,” Diaz said.

Diaz said stepping into sediment can pose risks.

“Because the organism lives in the sediment of the river or lake bottom,” he said.

The Louisiana Department of Health said no amoeba cases have been reported so far this year, but there have been previous deaths in the state caused by the brain-eating disease.

State epidemiologist Raoult Ratard stressed that amoeba cases do not happen often.

"It's very rare to see them. Most of the cases in the U.S., were people swimming in lakes, in rivers and not only swimming, but diving. If you dive, you're going to get water that comes up your nose,” said Ratard.

Diaz said while Louisiana has had some cases, the numbers are higher in some neighboring states.

"The disease is most prominent in the southern tier of the United States, the largest number of cases have occurred in Florida and in Texas. We have had a few cases in Louisiana and unfortunately, typically the cases although rare are just about all fatal,” Diaz said.

This year’s opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway sent lots of Mississippi River freshwater into Lake Pontchartrain and other bodies of water.

That has Diaz concerned about some water activities especially since the spillway was recently closed.

"I'd be concerned about people who are trying to swim in that Bonnet Carre Spillway area, or swimming in very shallow bodies of water. In the middle of the lake, where you're in 15 feet depth or so it's not as significant an issue as if you're in very shallow water, now it could still be there,” said Diaz.

He does have concerns about shallower areas of Lake Pontchartrain where swimmers often jump into the water.

"As you see all those kids at Leon C. Simon [Drive] and it's got a lot of fresh water there because all of that is coming in the lake, the salinity in the lake is going way, way down,” Diaz stated.

Diaz and Ratard agree that items around homes can harbor amoebas.

"It can also exist, you know, in the hose that you're filling up the pool with or it could exist in the community water system and we've had it actually in water systems, but the pathogen, the organism is not going to give you any problem if you swallow it, it's only if it goes up the nose,” Diaz stated.

Ratard said the state requires public water systems to use a certain amount of chlorine to fight amoebas.

"If you have enough level, and Louisiana raised the level that they need, there should be no free-living amoeba,” said Ratard.

At least one deadly case related to amoebas in Louisiana involved the use of tap water during nasal irrigation.

Ratard urges the public to be cautious.

"Neti pots should be filled with distilled water or you boil the water and you let it cool down,” he said.

The CDC says there have been cases when amoebas have been inhaled during ritual baptisms in freshwater.

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