Killer Brain-Eating Amoeba Is a Parent's Summer Nightmare

kids tubingChristian Strickland, 9, headed to a daytime fishing camp in Virginia earlier this month to fill some of the dwindling days of summer and enjoy time outdoors doing what boys love to do. One week later, on August 5, he was dead -- the third known victim this summer of meningoencephalitis, contracted through a brain-eating amoeba that lives in lakes, ponds, and other stagnant bodies of water when temperatures rise.

"He went from playing video games to being brain dead," the boy's mother, Amber Strickland, told the New York Daily News. It's heartbreaking to think that as children across the country gear up to go back to school, he won't be able to do the same, all because he got some water up his nose. And it's terrifying.

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Are the lakes we water ski on, swim in, and enjoy really full of dangerous, killer amoeba? In some cases, yes. The amoeba that causes meningoencephalitis is called Naegleria fowleri. It enters the body through the nose, then travels to and kills the brain. According the CDC, it can also occur in poorly maintained swimming pools or in geothermal (naturally hot) drinking water sources.

It's rare though, very rare. Between 2001 and 2010, just 32 cases were been reported in the United States. But that doesn't make it much less frightening when thinking of your own children.

I had never heard of such a thing until I moved to Florida a few years ago. It's fairly well publicized here when temperatures rise that there's a danger, and you'll hear of various lakes being closed here and there. The alligators are enough to keep me out of the lakes for the most part, but unless it's downright chilly outside, I won't allow my children into one. It's just too ominous, and it seems every year since moving here, I've heard at least one case of someone dying from it, usually children. This year seems particularly bad.

In addition to Strickland, in June a young man in Louisiana died of it after flushing his sinuses out with tap water, and earlier this month, 16-year-old Courtney Nash contracted the disease and died from it after swimming in a Florida river.

There's no treatment, and while the risk is low, there's no way to prevent it completely other than avoiding bodies of fresh water in warm months. The CDC does offer these tips as to how you can minimize your risk, however:

  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Hold the nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

Plenty of people enjoy lakes across the country all summer with no problems, and you certainly can't avoid every danger in life. But when there's a pool nearby, I see no need to let my kids take a risk in a lake ... until it's cold enough that they probably wouldn't want to go in anyway.

Do you and your children swim in lakes and ponds? Will news of this brain-eating amoeba change that?


Image via wsilver/Flickr

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