The amoeba Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating microorganism, was recently detected in the tap water of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. This microorganism can result in a condition known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), with devastating results. 

The often-fatal microorganism can wreck havoc with the central nervous system of those it infects. Nearly everyone who comes down with the infection dies. However, this disease is exceedingly rare, with just 133 cases reported in the United States between 1962 and 2014. All but three of the cases perished from the illness, along with one Mexican patient. 

Fortunately, the highly-hazardous amoeba cannot infect people drinking contaminated water. It must enter through the nose and travel to the brain via the olfactory nerve.

"Symptoms start 1-9 days (median 5 days) after swimming or other nasal exposure to Naegleria-containing water. People die 1-18 days (median 5 days) after symptoms begin [4]. PAM is difficult to detect because the disease progresses rapidly so that diagnosis is usually made after death," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

Three of the four known survivors were from the United States, beginning with one American surviving the disease in 1978. A patient in Mexico survived the illness in 2003, followed by a pair of American children 10 years later. The first was a 12-year-old girl and the second was a boy just eight years of age.

"[H]er brain swelling was aggressively managed with treatments that included cooling the body below normal body temperature (therapeutic hypothermia). This patient made a full neurologic recovery and returned to school. Her recovery has been attributed to early diagnosis and treatment and novel therapeutics including miltefosine and hypothermia," the CDC reported.

The young boy likely suffered permanent brain damage from his ordeal with the highly-dangerous amoeba. Proper treatment for him began days after infection, compared with the hours prior to treatment for the young girl. 

Some medical researchers believe the variation of the illness seen in 1978 may have been less dangerous than today's variety. Still, health officials in Louisiana are warning the public about the presence of the microorganism. 

"[T]he Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) confirmed the presence of the Naegleria fowleri ameba (sic) in the St. Bernard Parish Water System at the site of a leaking sampling station. The water system, which serves 44,000 residents in St. Bernard Parish, was tested by DHH as part of the State's new public drinking water surveillance program," the Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana reports.

Miltefosine is a new drug being investigated as a possible treatment for the infection. The drug has already been found to be effective in eliminating Naegleria fowleri under laboratory conditions. 

Health officials are telling residents of St. Bernard Parish that their tap water is safe to drink, but residents should avoid getting the liquid in their nasal cavity. The water system there is separate from that of New Orleans, just 17 miles away. 

Photo: Steve Johnson | Flickr

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