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Deadly brain-eating amoeba found in Louisiana water system, CDC confirms

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Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba that causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis.CDC.GOV

A rare amoeba that caused the August death of a child in south Louisiana has been found in five locations in a north Louisiana water system, state health regulators said Tuesday.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals said in a news release that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba in five places in DeSoto Parish Waterworks District No. 1, which is one of 14 water systems in the parish.

The water system said it will begin a free chlorine burn in the system Wednesday to last for 60 days.

"We are working closely with the water system and parish officials to ensure that the chlorine levels are increased to a level that will eliminate the risk of exposure to the amoeba," said J.T. Lane, assistant secretary of DHH's Office of Public Health.

As a result, residents may notice a change in the smell and taste of the water throughout the chlorine burn.

"Water from the DeSoto Parish Water Works District No. 1 remains safe to drink," Lane said.

DHH officials selected the DeSoto water system for additional testing because the area was the site of one of two 2011 amoeba-related deaths in Louisiana. Following the confirmation in September that St. Bernard Parish's water system had tested positive for the amoeba, DHH tested the DeSoto system as a precautionary measure.

"No known additional infections have occurred in DeSoto Parish, as incidences of infection are extremely rare," the department said.

Exposure to the amoeba has historically occurred as a result of swimming or diving in warm freshwater lakes and rivers. An infection cannot occur by drinking water, health officials said.

State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said there are steps residents can take to reduce risk of exposure, which can cause a rare brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal.

"The most important being to avoid allowing water to go up your nose while bathing or swimming in a pool," Guidry said. "It is important to remember that the water is safe to drink; the amoeba cannot infect an individual through the stomach."

St. Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans, started flushing its water lines with additional chlorine as a precaution after the state linked the amoeba to the encephalitis death of a child, a 4-year-old boy from Mississippi who was visiting a home in the parish.

The state says swimming or diving in freshwater lakes and rivers is the most common way to be exposed to the amoeba. Infections from other sources, such as heated tap water and swimming pool water that is inadequately chlorinated, are rare.

In the early stages, symptoms of an infection from the amoeba are similar to those of bacterial meningitis and include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck. Later symptoms include confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.