Boy Dies From a Brain-Eating Amoeba After Exposure at Lake Mead

This is the third fatal case in the U.S. this year

Illustration of amoeba
Computer illustration of Naegleria fowleri  Kateryna Kon / Science Photo Library via Getty Images

A Nevada boy has died from an infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba after visiting Lake Mead this month. He was likely exposed in Arizona near the Hoover Dam and began to develop symptoms about a week later, per a statement from the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD).

“My condolences go out to the family of this young man,” Fermin Leguen, the district health officer, says in the statement. “While I want to reassure the public that this type of infection is an extremely rare occurrence, I know this brings no comfort to his family and friends at this time.”

Brain-eating amoebae (Naegleria fowleri) are single-celled organisms found in warm fresh water. They enter the human body through the nose and travel up into the brain, destroying brain tissue and leading to an infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). 

Symptoms include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and usually begin about five days after exposure. The disease progresses quickly, and later symptoms include stiff neck, confusion, inattention, seizures, hallucinations and coma. Death usually occurs within five days after symptoms start. Naegleria fowleri cannot cause infection if swallowed—as stomach acid kills the amoeba—and the disease cannot be spread from person to person, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

PAM is rare, but usually fatal. Of the 154 known infected Americans from 1962 to 2021, only four have survived—a death rate of over 97 percent. Most infections happen in boys aged 14 and younger, which the CDC says may be because they are more likely than other demographics to dive into the water and dig in the sediment at the bottom. 

There is currently no cure for PAM, but treatments include a combination of drugs, including antifungals and antibiotics, though “none work very well by themselves,” Dennis Kyle, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Georgia, told Nexstar’s Michael Bartiromo last year. “If we had more awareness, better support, more people working on this—then we could possibly come up with better diagnostics and better treatments in a reasonable amount of time and avoid these devastating things that are happening.”

Because these organisms thrive in warmer waters, it is possible PAM cases will rise because of climate change, per the CDC. But as of 2019, “we haven’t seen any statistically significant trends of increasing numbers,” CDC medical epidemiologist Jennifer Cope said at that year’s Amoeba Summit. “However… the geographic distribution appears to be moving north.” 

The Nevada case marks the third fatal infection in the United States this year. In August, a child in Nebraska died after swimming in the state’s Elkhorn River. And a Missouri man contracted the disease at a southern Iowa beach in July. 

“The organism exists naturally and commonly in the environment, but disease is extremely rare,” Maria Said, a U.S. public health service officer, said in a statement, per CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe. “However, recreational water users should always assume there is a risk anytime they enter warm fresh water.”

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