Brain-Eating Amoeba: Officials Looking Into Whether It Infected Minnesota Child

Rare infection suspected after child becomes critically ill.

ByABC News
July 8, 2015, 11:15 AM

— -- Officials are investigating if a parasitic amoeba made a child critically ill after swimming in a Minnesota lake this summer.

The Minnesota Health Department is investigating if the unidentified child developed a rare and severe brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The infection can occur if an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri is able to travel through the nasal cavity in the brain.

The state's health department said the child developed symptoms after swimming in a Minnesota lake and that the kid remained in crucial condition.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the amoeba isn’t harmful unless it manages to travel to the brain through the nasal cavity.

“Now the amoeba is plastered up in the mucus membranes of the nose and eats its way into structures of the nose and gets into the brain,” said Schaffner. “They’re just moving around and trying to live and they cause tissue destruction and inflammation.”

Schaffner said the symptoms of the amoebic infection are similar to other more common diseases and can include headache, fever, being incoherent or disoriented. Additionally the infection can be extremely hard to treat necessitating the use of intravenous antibiotics in the hospital.

Although serious, Naegleria fowleri infections are extremely rare.

According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there are zero to eight infections from parasitic amoebas each year and nearly all are fatal. However, drowning is far more common occurrence with unintentional drownings killing 10 people per day.

Scaffner explained it doesn't make sense to rope off one lake in Minnesota when it's impossible to test for amoeba in an entire lake bed.

The Minnesota Department of Health says residents can take a few steps to protect themselves if they're in freshwater rivers or lakes.

"There is a low-level risk of infection from Naegleria in any freshwater,” Waterborne Diseases Unit Supervisor Trisha Robinson said in a statement. “While the only sure way to prevent PAM is to avoid participation in freshwater-related activities, you can reduce your risk by keeping your head out of the water, using nose clips or holding the nose shut, and avoiding stirring up sediment at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas.”

Schaffner said people shouldn't fear going to fresh water lakes or feel they can only stick with going into the ocean or chlorinated pools.

"The amoeba are in small numbers everywhere," explained Schaffner. "They go hibernate in the winter time. They’re part of natural environment."