Rare brain-eating amoeba infection reported in Hillsborough County

Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba that causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis, can be caught in warm water locations. (CDC.gov)

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) confirmed that one person in Hillsborough County has been infected with Naegleria fowleri, a water-borne microscopic single-celled amoeba that attacks the brain.

The amoeba can cause a rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) which destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal.  Infections can happen when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. Once the amoeba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes PAM, according to the DOH. 

The DOH did not specifically say where in Hillsborough County this latest infection was reported; nor did they provide any details about the person's gender, age, or medical status. FOX 13 has reached out to the DOH for any additional information.

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Naegleria fowleri is found in many warm freshwater lakes, ponds, canals, and rivers in the United States, but is more common in southern states. 

There have been only 37 reported cases with exposure in Florida since 1962. Experts say the low number of infections makes it difficult to know why so few people have been infected compared to the millions of other people that used the same or similar waters across the U.S.  

Infections usually occur when temperatures increase for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels. The peak season for this amoeba is July, August and September. 

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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. 

Adverse health effects on humans can be prevented by avoiding nasal contact with the waters since the amoeba enters through the nasal passages. As a precaution, health officials recommend the following:

  • 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.
  • Exposure to the amoeba may also occur when using neti pots to rinse your sinuses of cold/allergy-related congestion or conducting religious rituals with tap water. Use only boiled and cooled, distilled, or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or performing ritual ablutions.

Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms after swimming in any warm body of water is asked to contact their health care provider immediately: headache, fever, nausea, disorientation, vomiting, stiff neck, seizures, loss of balance, or hallucinations. 

DOH officials said it is essential to seek medical attention right away, as the disease progresses rapidly after the start of symptoms.

The DOH stresses that this disease is rare and "effective prevention strategies can allow for a safe and relaxing summer swim season."

LINK: For the latest information about the amoeba, visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/general.html.