Child died from brain-eating amoeba infection, CDC confirms

For the first time in Nebraska history, a child has died from a suspected brain-eating amoeba. (Source: WOWT)
Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 4:31 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT/Gray News) – Health officials in Nebraska said a child died from a brain-eating amoeba infection.

The CDC has confirmed that the cause of death was primary amebic meningoencephalitis – the disease caused by infection with the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri – after the child went swimming in the Elkhorn River on Aug. 8.

Dr. Kari Neeman, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, said the child had symptoms about five days after exposure and went to the hospital within 48 hours of the onset of those symptoms.

The death marks the first Naegleria fowleri case in Nebraska history.

The Douglas County Health Department (DCHD) is now urging extra caution when coming into contact with freshwater sources like rivers, lakes and streams.

Dr. Lindsay Huse said the DCHD will not be releasing further details about the child because of privacy concerns. She said it was possible that others swimming in the same area at the time came in contact with the amoeba but were not infected.

Naegleria fowleri is often present in freshwater, and if it gets up your nose, it can gain access to the central nervous system and into the brain, according to Dr. Mark Rupp, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Officials suggest keeping your head above water when swimming in rivers, lakes and streams. If you do go underwater, officials say to plug your nose when swimming or diving.

Health officials said you cannot be infected by drinking contaminated water.

Symptoms, which typically occur within 12 days of an infection, can include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting, but can progress to stiffness in the neck, confusion and seizures.

While the disease is extremely rare, its mortality rate is more than 97%. Patients are very unlikely to survive.

“The real tragedy behind this is that the treatments are not great, and the mortality is very, very high, almost universal,” Rupp said.

According to the CDC, 154 known cases have been reported since 1962, and only four of those people survived.

Of the 31 cases reported in the last 10 years, 28 people were infected by recreational water, two people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and one person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide, the CDC said.

The DCHD does not have any plans to shut down access points along the Elkhorn River where the child was infected but is advising swimmers to use awareness and caution.

A similar case led to the death of a Missouri resident who was likely infected while swimming in an Iowa lake last month. The lake was closed to swimmers for several days while the CDC tested the waters to confirm the presence of Naegleria fowleri.

Huse said the recent cases aren’t necessarily related, noting that the case in Iowa was in water not connected to the Elkhorn River. But regions are becoming warmer, and the organism loves heat and thrives in drought conditions — particularly warmer, stagnant, shallow waters, she said.

Health officials said the best way to reduce your chance of infection is to simply not allow water to get up your nose.