Residents of eight different cities in Texas have been warned not to use their water supply over concerns that a brain-eating amoeba had infected the water system. A 6-year-old boy died after being infected with the amoeba, which led to an investigation that prompted the warning.
According to Houston news station KHOU-TV, 6-year-old Josiah McIntyre was hospitalized in early September and later died after contracting the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri at either his neighborhood splash pad or a hose at his family home in Lake Jackson, Texas.
“The notification to us at that time was that he has played at one of our play fountains and he may have also played with a water hose at the home,” city manager Modesto Mundo told KHOU-TV.
Public health officials later issued a do not use advisory for the water in several cities — Lake Jackson, Freeport, Angleton, Brazoria, Richwood, Oyster Creek, Clute and Rosenberg, Texas — telling residents that they should only use their water to flush toilets. The notice was later narrowed to Lake Jackson, Texas.
According to a news release issued by the Lake Jackson city officials on Saturday, residents are now being urged to boil their water before use. City workers are currently flushing the water system with chlorine, noting that residents “may experience taste and odor changes” in their drinking water while the process is happening. The process, which city officials say is usually routine and happens twice a year, is expected to continue for 60 days.
What is Naegleria fowleri?
Naegleria fowleri is a free-living microscopic amoeba that’s often referred to as a “brain-eating amoeba,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Naegleria fowleri is commonly found in warm freshwater and soil, the CDC says, but it can, on occasion, infiltrate tap water.
Naegleria fowleri usually infects people when contaminated water travels up a person’s nose, where it then goes to the brain. From there, it causes a condition known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which is often fatal.
The CDC stresses that people can’t get infected with Naegleria fowleri from swallowing water that is contaminated with the amoeba. However, in this situation, it’s likely that public health officials recommend that people stopped using the water entirely out of an abundance of caution, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
How common are Naegleria fowleri infections?
This infection is “very rare,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.
Naegleria fowleri infections are so rare, that the CDC has only recorded 34 cases between 2009 and 2018. In those cases, 30 people were infected from recreational water, three people were infected from doing nasal irrigation with contaminated tap water, and one person was infected from tap water used for a backyard slip-n-slide, the CDC says.
Naegleria fowleri is less likely to be found in water as temperatures decline, the CDC says, but it’s still warm right now in Texas and many other Southern parts of the country, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “If these amoebas get into a water system, they can still survive this time of year,” he says.
However, Adalja stresses that this is “very rare.”
“Think about how many times people jump into pools and ponds, and don’t get infected,” he says. “This is an amoeba that’s everywhere. People get exposed millions of times and we only get a few cases a year.”
What are the symptoms of PAM?
It can take between one and nine days for a person to develop symptoms of PAM, the CDC says. Those symptoms include:
Lack of attention to people and surroundings
Loss of balance
The disease often “progresses rapidly” and “usually causes death within about five days,” the CDC says.
What can people do to stay safe?
The biggest thing, per Adalja: “You don’t want water to go up your nose.”
If you live in an area where Naegleria fowleri has been detected in the water supply, Schaffner recommends following local health recommendations. But, in general, he says it’s a good idea for people everywhere to try to avoid getting water in your eyes when you shower, try to avoid getting water up your nose and only use distilled or boiled (and cooled) water for nasal irrigation.
If you plan to go swimming, it’s also important to try to keep water out of your nose. “If you’re planning to dive into water feet-first, hold your nose, by all means, or use nose plugs,” Schaffner says.
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