Killer Brain-Eating Amoeba Found in Louisiana Water

A deadly brain-eating amoeba was found in a water supply in Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana. The positive results, indicating the presence of an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, were announced Sunday by Consolidated Waterworks in Terrebonne Parish.

The sample that tested positive was taken from the "very end of the distribution in Pointe-aux-Chenes," said a notice from Consolidated Waterworks. The company said it consulted with engineers from the Louisiana Department of Health and subsequently changed its disinfection procedure. The procedure used to involve chloramine and now has free chlorine.

The same amoeba was found in 2015 in water in St. Bernard Parish, another area along Louisiana's coastline of islands and peninsulas. During that incident, the Louisiana Department of Health said drinking water was ok to consume but that residents should be careful of getting any water up their noses.

A fact sheet, issued around the same time as the 2015 outbreak said, "You cannot get infected from drinking water contaminated with Naegleria." The few people who do get sick with the amoeba usually contract it from swimming in warm freshwater areas where the single-celled organism lives.

Some people have also gotten it from using tap water to cleanse their sinuses. Once it enters through the nose, the amoeba travels to the brain where it can destroy brain tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the 143 people who have been infected with the amoeba in the United States from 1962 to 2016, 139 have died. The amoeba causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis and destroys brain tissue which, in turn, causes the brain to swell and the person to die.

When compared to other risks associated with water activities, the chances of contracting the amoeba are incredibly low. For reference, roughly 34,000 people die of drowning each year, whereas only zero to eight people will contact the amoeba each year, according to CDC data.

Symptoms can start anywhere from five days to a little over a week after the amoeba is contracted. The earliest symptoms, however, would be hard to associate with the infection because they're similar to many other infections or illnesses.

Headache, fever and possible vomiting are all symptoms. As the symptoms persist, they can expand to also include a stiff neck, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. Most people who get the amoeba will die after a week or less, according to the CDC.

Naegleria fowleri
Computer-generated representation of Naegleria fowleri in its ameboid trophozoite stage, in its flagellated stage, and in its cyst stage. CDC