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Dr Manny's Notes

How to protect yourself from deadly brain-eating amoeba

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Tissue infected with the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.CDC.gov

One of this summer’s biggest health stories reads like something out of a science fiction novel: A brain-eating amoeba that resides in lakes and ponds, entering people’s bodies through their nostrils and ultimately killing them.

News that a 12-year-old girl from Arkansas contracted a brain-eating parasite during a trip to a water park has led to widespread concern about the safety of swimming or water sports during the summer.

The truth is, this concern isn’t entirely unwarranted. While I’m not trying to promote mass hysteria here, I do urge people to exercise a bit of caution before diving into any body of freshwater.

High temperatures have gone a long way in both heating up and shrinking the size of lakes and ponds. This kind of environment, hot, shallow, stagnant water, is perfect for the single-celled amoeba to reproduce and thrive.

While the amoebae do not affect everyone who enters the water, for the few that are sensitive to the organisms, the consequences are nearly always fatal. The amoeba gets up the nose, burrows up into the skull and destroys brain tissue.

Over the next few days, the infected person exhibits signs and symptoms of meningitis, such as fever, headache and stiff neck, before falling into a coma and eventually dying.

This condition is rare, and there is no need for mass alarm. There have only been 128 reported cases in the United States since the amoeba was identified in 1960.

However, given the fatality rate of this condition – only one person has ever survived – I don’t think it hurts to exercise some caution.

While the best prevention is obviously to avoid swimming in any body of freshwater to begin with, I realize this is an unrealistic expectation. I do recommend avoiding shallow water that has been thoroughly heated by the sun, all the way down to the bottom. Amoebae are less likely to be found in deeper water where you can feel that the temperature at the bottom is cooler than the top.

Also, make sure to plug your nose when jumping or diving into water and avoid excess splashing. These simple measures can all decrease the likelihood of amoebae entering the body.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's Senior Managing Editor for Health News. Prior to this position, Alvarez was a FNC medical contributor.
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