Naegleria fowleri: What is a brain-eating amoeba and how do you get it?

Single-celled organism lives in warm freshwater
Posted at 5:44 PM, Aug 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-11 17:44:54-04

As the temperature continues to rise, so do the warnings about a potentially deadly bacteria lurking in freshwater lakes and ponds.

The Florida Department of Health confirms an amoeba got into the brain of a swimmer in Broward County. Now, he's fighting for his life.

Skiing is in Bill Sowers's DNA.

“It's always been my passion, I’ve been water skiing competitively for the past 40 years,” he said.

On most days, you’ll find him on the water at Okeeheelee Park.

Until now, the last thing he and his wife thought about while on their skis was a deadly amoeba lurking in the water. “I have heard of it, but not in the United States,” said Patty, Bill’s wife. 

This type of amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, thrives in Florida’s freshwater lakes and streams when the water temperature is over 80 degrees.

Neuroscientist Dr. James Galvin at Florida Atlantic University said the single-celled killer only enters the human body through the nose. “Think about a young child doing a cannonball into a lake and then water goes up your nose, and that provides the pathway for the amoeba to get into your brain,” Galvin explained.

Sowers said it isn’t hard for a water-skier to get water up their nose.

“I’m probably always going to think about it now every time I get in the water, but I’m probably not going to be able to do much about it,” he said. Besides staying out of the water, experts say the one thing you can do to prevent getting the amoeba is wear a nose clip. It forces your nostrils closed, preventing water from coming in.

“You might get used to it after a while, but it's tight at the beginning,” said Sowers after trying on a clip.

In Central Florida, four children died in the last several years because of this amoeba. Now there are signs warning of the danger.  

In Palm Beach County, the health department said it has no immediate plans to install warning signs specific to this amoeba. There are several signs at parks advising visitors not to swim in the water. Those signs will remain in place.

Galvin said the amoeba causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis. It is almost always fatal in humans. But it is rare. He said there have been 35 cases in the United States over the past ten years.

He said the circumstances have to be just right for the amoeba to enter a person.

“There is no need for mass panic, but if your child or you swim in a freshwater lake, you really want to consider using the nose clip,” Galvin said.