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Officials now say a Minnesota teenage boy who died suddenly in early July was not killed by a brain-eating amoeba, as previously suspected.
Hunter A. Boutain, 14, died from streptococcal meningoencephalitis, a form of bacterial meningitis, the Minnesota Department of Health announced on Monday.
A spokesman for the department told CNN that Boutain suffered a skull fracture before he was infected, which can make a person more susceptible to meningitis.
It was previously believed that Boutain died from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a rare infection of the brain caused by the deadly, fresh water-dwelling amoeba Naegleria fowleri. Boutain had been swimming in Minnesota’s Lake Minnewaska and died just 48 hours later. He was hospitalized after his swim and was unresponsive hours later, The Associated Press reports.
However, the Minnesota Department of Health warns that the brain-eating amoeba is still a threat: “The results also do not change the fact that there is always a very low-level risk of infection with Naegleria fowleri when swimming in fresh water.”
The news of Boutain’s death was eerily similar to a report that surfaced in July of a 21-year-old woman who died of PAM after swimming in a lake in Reno, Nevada.
The woman, whose identity has not been released by her family, first experienced a headache, nausea, and vomiting on June 16, the Reno Gazette-Journal reports. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with meningitis, before experiencing cardiac arrest and dying on June 20. (Testing conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was positive for Naegleria fowleri.)
But according to the CDC, Naegleria fowleri infections are extremely rare in the U.S. Just 35 infections were reported from 2005 to 2014 and, of those infections, 31 people were infected after swimming. One contracted the parasite from contaminated water used on a backyard slip ‘n slide.
Despite the rarity of infections, Naegleria is found in fresh water all over the world, says infectious disease specialist Amesh Adalja, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — and it loves warm water.
“During summer months, you’re going to see cases of Naegleria fowleri infections because people tend to engage in water-related activities,” he explains to Yahoo Health.
Naegleria fowleri infects people when water that contains the parasite gets up their nose. The amoeba — which cannot infect you from drinking water — then travels up the nose into the brain where it typically causes an infection of the lining around the brain (meningitis) and inflammation of the brain (known as encephalitis). Symptoms often include severe headaches, fever, and a stiff neck.
Naegleria fowleri doesn’t just show up in lakes, though: It can be in your water as well. Three of the 35 cases reported to the CDC were of people who were infected after doing nasal irrigation with contaminated tap water. The amoeba also recently surfaced in the tap water of a Louisiana county not far from New Orleans.
“If you’re going to use a neti pot, it’s probably not a bad idea to use sterile or filtered water,” says Steven Gordon, MD, chairman of the infectious disease department at the Cleveland Clinic, which has seen a few cases of Naegleria fowleri infections.
Gordon tells Yahoo Health that experts don’t know why some people become infected with the most deadly form of the condition and others don’t.
But experts do know that it’s often deadly. “Virtually everybody who contracts it dies from it,” says Adalja. However, he says there have been a “handful of cases” where people have survived, after doctors were able control pressure in the patients’ brains.
While experts stress that a Naegleria fowleri infection is rare, there are some steps you can take to lower your already slim odds of developing the illness.
If you’re concerned about contracting the infection, avoid putting your head underwater while swimming in lakes or rivers, and don’t jump or dive into freshwater — all of which can result in water getting up your nose. You can also wear nose plugs to keep water out.
However, Gordon says, “It’s such an unusual event … we don’t want you to stop swimming.”
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