News Feature | September 17, 2013

Brain-Eating Amoeba Strikes Water Supply, Spurs Action

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Facing Naegleria fowleri amoeba threat, Louisiana parish flushes water lines with chlorine.

A brain-eating amoeba was found in the drinking water in St. Bernard Parish, LA, resulting in the death of a four-year old boy playing on a Slip 'N Slide last month. 

According to the state Department of Health, the municipality is fighting the threat by adding chlorine to its water lines to kill off any remaining parasites. The parasite in question, Naegleria fowleri, afflicts people who inhale it with the symptoms of meningitis, including headaches and vomiting. The amoeba generally enters through the nose and eats the brain.

The amoeba is not a new plight. As Water Online reported two years ago, it appears to be an end-of-summer phenomenon. It "thrives in warm water, and thus most commonly strikes between July and September," the article said, noting that the issue is "certainly a situation to monitor for the long-term sake of water quality and safety."

According to WebMD, Naegleria fowleri can be found in lakes, ponds, rivers, untreated swimming pools, untreated well water and municipal water, and in thermally polluted water, such as power plant runoff. 

The state suggested the ongoing threat is minimal. State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said, "The water is safe to drink and there are basic precautions that families can take — such as chlorinating their pools and avoiding getting water in their noses — to protect themselves, though infection from this amoeba is very rare."

Officials pointed local families to tips from the Centers for Disease Control on how they might protect themselves. The advice included: "Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater."

The parasite is hardly a common problem. "A total of 128 infections have been reported between 1962 and 2012. In the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, 31 infections were reported in the U.S.," The New York Daily News reported. 

After the tragedy in LA, the water sector has received few answers about how this could have been prevented. "Tests by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence of Naegleria fowleri in water serving St. Bernard Parish Sept. 12, but how the amoeba infiltrated the water supply remains unclear," ABC News reported.

Image credit: "Trophozoites of Naegleria fowleri in brain tissue," © 2011 marsmettn tallahassee., used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: