According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a total of 138 primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) infections were reported in the United States between 1962 and 2015. "Hundreds of millions of visits to swimming venues occur each year in the U.S. that result in 0 to 8 infections per year," the agency says. To put that in perspective, more than 3,500 people drown every year.
PAM is an almost always fatal infection caused by Naegleria fowleri, aka the “brain-eating amoeba." A recent article in Health, features various experts' knowledge who have encountered the parasite, including Bobbi Pritt, M.D., Director of the Clinical Parasitology Laboratory in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.
According to the article, Naegleria fowleri is found in soil and warm freshwater environments like lakes, rivers, and hot springs. It thrives in summer, when air temperatures climb into the 80s and 90s and water temperatures reach the 70s.
The majority of PAM infections have occurred in southern states—Florida and Texas alone account for more than half of all U.S. cases. But as climate change heats the globe, Naegleria fowleri seems to have expanded its territory. Minnesota confirmed cases in both 2010 and 2012. “If temperatures continue to rise, we could see this in areas farther north,” says Dr. Pritt.
While the parasite loves heat, it doesn’t necessarily love humans. “Naegleria fowleri are free-living organisms that would much rather remain in the environment than end up in a human. We’re a dead-end host, and not part of their life cycle,” says Dr. Pritt.
If you’re going to be spending time in fresh water, blocking your nasal passages with pinched fingers (if you take a brief dip) or wearing a nose plug (if you’re going tubing, rafting, or swimming) will deny the parasite entry, full stop. “If I had a really good nose plug, I wouldn’t even think about [potential infection],” says Dr. Pritt.
It’s also important to avoid infection via devices like neti pots, which have been linked to PAM in a few recent cases. “The safest approach is to boil water before you use it [to irrigate your nasal passages], and to clean your neti pot with water that’s been boiled,” she says.
Read the full article for more tips.
By Gina Chiri-Osmond