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A brain-eating amoeba may have killed child in Nebraska, officials say

A brain tissue specimen after a Naegleria fowleri amoebic infection. (CDC)

A Nebraska child died this week after a suspected rare infection from a brain-eating amoeba — the first reported death from that specific organism in the state’s history, according to state and local health authorities.

The child — who has not been publicly identified, to protect the family’s privacy — is thought to have contracted an infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), caused by Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled organism found in warm freshwater sources such in as rivers, lakes and streams. Health authorities say the child may have become infected after swimming Aug. 8 in shallow water in the Elkhorn River in Douglas County.

Federal health officials are working to confirm the case, the Douglas County Health Department said.

“We can only imagine the devastation this family must be feeling, and our deepest condolences are with them,” Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said in a statement Wednesday. “We can honor the memory of this child by becoming educated about the risk and then taking steps to prevent infection.”

This brain-eating amoeba kills 97 percent of the people it infects. Not Sebastian DeLeon.

Huse told reporters Thursday that the child had engaged in “typical swimming activity.” Health experts say the amoeba can enter the body through the nose when in the water.

The child was hospitalized five days after swimming, the health department said.

“We just want people to be aware there is a risk there,” Huse said.

The brain-eating amoeba is most often found in freshwater sources in southern states. It is not found in salt water, such as the ocean, federal health authorities said.

Infections from Naegleria fowleri are very rare. From 2012 to 2021, only 31 cases were reported in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, the vast majority — 28 people — were infected in recreational water. Two were infected after performing nasal irrigation with contaminated tap water, and one was infected by contaminated water on Slip ’N Slide, the CDC said.

“Millions of recreational water exposures occur each year, while only 0 to 8 Naegleria fowleri infections are identified each year,” Nebraska state epidemiologist Matthew Donahue said in a statement, adding, “Limiting the opportunities for freshwater to get into the nose are the best ways to reduce the risk of infection.”

In recent years, a 19-year-old woman died after becoming infected with the waterborne parasite in Maryland and a 6-year-old boy and a 3-year-old boy died in separate incidents after exposures in Texas.

People can become infected when water containing the amoeba goes up the nose — infection cannot occur by drinking contaminated water, and those who are infected cannot transmit the infection to others, the CDC said.

Symptoms of PAM, which destroys brain tissue, usually present about five days after infection and may initially include fever, headache and intestinal issues such as nausea or vomiting, according to the CDC. As the infection progresses, the CDC said, patients may experience a stiff neck, confusion, hallucinations and seizures.

Data shows an estimated 97 percent of those who become ill die of the infection. Only four patients over the past 60 years have survived. Death usually occurs within about five days after the onset of symptoms, the CDC said.

Although the risk of infection from Naegleria fowleri is very low, health experts recommend taking certain precautions, such as avoiding freshwater sources during the late summer weeks when infections are more likely to occur, refraining from submerging the head or engaging in activities such as diving that forces water into the nose, and, whenever possible, using a nose clip or manually plugging the nose when going underwater.