Louisiana health officials are using chlorine to kill a brain-eating amoeba lurking in the water supply.
The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, causes a deadly form of meningitis when inhaled through the nose. It has killed at least two children this summer, including a 4-year-old boy from St. Bernard Parish who contracted the infection while playing on as Slip ‘N Slide.
“We know that chlorine kills Naegleria fowleri, which is why it was critical that the parish proactively begin flushing its water system with additional chlorine last week,” Louisiana Department of Public Health spokesman J.T. Lane said in a statement, adding that the chlorination process would continue for several weeks.
Tests by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence of Naegleria in water serving St. Bernard Parish Sept. 12, but how the amoeba infiltrated the water supply remains unclear.
A similar situation in Australia was traced to a stretch of overland pipe supplying water that was overheated and under-disinfected, according to the CDC. The contamination led to “multiple deaths” and resulted in regular monitoring for Naegleria in drinking water distribution systems.
The amoeba also thrives in warm, standing freshwater and the sediment of rivers and lakes. In July 2013, 12-year-old Kali Hardig contracted Naegleria from a sandy-bottom lake at Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, Ark. She’s the second American known to have survived the infection out of at least 124 people.
Early symptoms of a Naegleria infection include a severe frontal headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC. But those can swiftly give way to a stiff neck, seizures, confusion and hallucinations as the amoeba makes its way up through the nasal cavity into the brain.
“After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days,” the according to the CDC. “People should seek medical care immediately whenever they develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck and vomiting, particularly if they have been in warm freshwater recently.”
Louisiana health officials said Naegleria could not be contracted through drinking contaminated water, and emphasized that chlorine levels would be monitored daily to ensure the water was safe for consumption. But families are urged to take special precautions for swimming and bathing.
The CDC recommends the following safety steps:
- Do not allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose when swimming, bathing, showering or washing your face;
- Do not jump into pools or put your head under bathing water;
- Keep your pool adequately disinfected before and during use;
- Run bath taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes
- Avoid Slip ‘N Slides, and do not allow children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers;
- Keep small plastic and blow-up pools clean, and allow them to dry after each use;
- Use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water when using neti pots or performing ritual ablutions.