News reports about Naegleria fowleri, the “brain-eating” amoeba that lurks in fresh water and enters swimmers’ noses before killing them, often emphasize that the parasite is rare.
When something that eats brains is found in a community’s water supply, that’ s cold comfort.
Located about 30 miles west of New Orleans, St. John the Baptist Parish is home to about 44,000 people. (Louisiana calls a “parish” what other states would call a “county.”) It’s known for its farming, industry and andouille festival.
But on Thursday, WGNO reported that Naegleria fowleri had infiltrated the drinking water of more than 12,000 people in the parish.
Don’t panic, authorities said.
“Families can take simple steps to protect themselves from exposure to this ameba, the most important being to avoid allowing water to go up your nose while bathing or swimming in a pool,” Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said in a statement. “It is important to remember that the water is safe to drink; the ameba cannot infect an individual through the stomach.”
No one has been sickened yet, but the parish began a “chlorine burn” Thursday to flush out the parasite.
Naegleria fowleri kills via primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection that is almost always fatal. Since 1962, the Centers for Disease Control reported, there have been fewer than 10 cases per year. These included a 9-year-old water skier who died in Kansas in July and a 12-year-old girl who survived the condition last year — just the third survivor in more than 50 years.
Among the CDC’s terrifying recommendations on how to avoid infection:
- DO NOT allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose when bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming in small hard plastic/blow-up pools.
- DO NOT jump into or put your head under bathing water (bathtubs, small hard plastic/blow-up pools) – walk or lower yourself in.
- DO NOT allow children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers, as they may accidentally squirt water up their nose. Avoid slip-n-slides or other activities where it is difficult to prevent water going up the nose.
- DO run bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes. This is most important the first time you use the tap after the water utility raises the disinfectant level.
- DO keep small hard plastic/blow-up pools clean by emptying, scrubbing, and allowing them to dry after each use.
- DO use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or performing ritual ablutions. [What’s a neti pot? A ceramic nasal irrigation device inspired by Ayurvedic medicine.]
- DO keep your swimming pool adequately disinfected before and during use.
This is not the first time Naegleria fowleri has been found in a public water supply. The parasite was found in St. Bernard Parish, a Louisiana coastal community hammered by Hurricane Katrina, last year. The amoeba also killed two children drinking untreated water in Arizona in 2003.
Naegleria fowleri cases are largely limited to warmer Southern states — but the amoeba may be moving north with climate change.