Weeks after visiting a North Carolina water park, a man has died from a brain-eating amoeba, leading people to question the safety of the popular summertime activity.
Eddie Gray spent July 12 at Fantasy Lake water park in Cumberland County, North Carolina with his church mission group. North Carolina health officials believe that he contracted Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba naturally found in warm freshwater in the summer, at the man-made lake.
Cases of the brain-eating amoeba are extremely rare — while millions of swimmers head to the water each year in the United States, only around 0 to 8 people contract it. But before you hit the water park, here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
What exactly is brain-eating amoeba?
Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as brain-eating amoeba, is a single-celled living organism that can cause a rare and almost always fatal infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, only three people in the U.S. out of 138 from 1962 until 2015 have survived the infection.
Where does it live?
Brain-eating amoeba is most commonly found in warm fresh waters such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. It also resides in poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools, staying in these habitats to feed on bacteria.
“Amoeba is naturally occurring, so it could be present in any body of fresh water,” Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokeswoman Mirna Chamorro previously told PEOPLE.
The majority of infections from amoeba have occurred in “15 southern-tier states, with more than half of all infections occurring in Texas and Florida,” according to the CDC. Naegleria is not found in salt water.
How do people contract it?
You cannot get the amoeba by simply swallowing the water while you swim, “but can be fatal if forced up the nose, as can occur during diving, water-skiing or other water activities,” according to North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services.
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How do I know if I have it?
Symptoms of brain-eating amoeba generally start one to nine days after nasal exposure and many people die within 18 days of showing symptoms, according to the CDC. These include severe headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting in the first stage, and stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations and a coma in the second stage. Unfortunately, PAM, the infection caused from the amoeba, is ultimately hard to detect because of the rapid progression of the disease. Diagnosis is typically made postmortem.
Do officials test for amoeba in bodies of water?
The CDC does not recommend testing bodies of water for brain-eating amoeba, because it is naturally occurring, which means “there is no established relationship between detection or concentration of naegleria fowleri and risk of infection,” Chamorro said.
Testing water doesn’t give people all of the information they need to make an informed decision before swimming in a body of water.
“It might give a false sense of security,” she said. “There can be amoeba on one side of a lake, but not the other. It can also be found in sediment.”
She adds, “Signs warning of amoeba aren’t usually placed near bodies of water, because of this.”
What can I do to avoid amoeba?
Although infection is rare, there is currently no method to reduce the number of amoebas in water. On its website, the CDC says that because of this, it is “unclear how a standard might be set to protect human health and how public health officials would measure and enforce such a standard.”
The only guaranteed way to avoid a brain-eating amoeba infections is to refrain from participating in water-related activities in warm freshwater. “Anyone that enjoys time in a body of water should cover their nose before they go in or use nose clips,” says Chamorro. “As long as they don’t put their head under water, they are okay.”