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Brain-Eating Amoeba Linked to Warm Water Kills California Woman

A 21-year-old woman died recently after contracting a rare infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba that thrives in warm bodies of water.

The woman, whose identity has not been released, came into contact with the amoeba on private property.

The organisms, known as Naegleria fowleri, are commonly found in warm freshwater such as lakes, ponds and hot springs. Humans are infected when water containing the amoeba travels through the nose and migrate to the brain, destroying the tissue.

Cases of Naegleria fowleri are rare, but deadly. After initial symptoms such as headaches, vomiting and fever, the disease progresses rapidly and in most cases causes death within three to 18 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last 52 years, 133 cases have been reported in the U.S. Only three people survived.

The woman was admitted to Northern Inyo Hospital in Bishop, California, on June 16. She was initially diagnosed with meningitis but her condition continued to deteriorate, the hospital said in a report released Wednesday.

She was then flown to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, where the CDC confirmed it was a case of Naegleria fowleri.

As the infection was believed to have been contracted on private property, the hospital said there is no threat to the general public.

Still, high temperatures in the summer months elevate the risk of coming into contact with the brain-eating amoeba. Most infections occur during July, August and September when there is prolonged heat and thus higher water temperatures and lower water levels.

Though the amoeba is widespread, the chances of being infected remain low because it is not a parasite that seeks human hosts, the hospital said.

"It is unknown why certain persons become infected with the ameba while millions of others exposed to warm recreational fresh waters, including those who were swimming with people who became infected, do not," Richard Johnson, M.D., of Inyo Public Health said in the report.

Low water levels may have played a role due to the ongoing drought in both California and Nevada. Though the hospital does not specify the location of where the woman was exposed, the general area near Bishop, California, is in exceptional drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Tips for Summer Swimmers From the CDC:

Hold your nose shut, use nose clips or keep your head above water in warm bodies of freshwater.

Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm bodies of freshwater.

Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.

Do not put your head under water in hot springs.