Health Expert Says Keep Amoeba Risk In Perspective

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Kansas lakes, rivers and ponds are a balance of living things, including tiny cellular organisms called amoebas.

Amoebas are very common in fresh water and, says Dr. Jo-Ann Harris, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Topeka's Stormont-Vail HealthCare, they usually do not bother anyone.

But recently, they did.

Nine-year-old Hally Yust of Spring Hill died July 9th of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM, which is caused by an amoeba that lives in fresh water. Hally was an avid water skier who'd been in at least four lakes in the week before her death.

How did it happen? Harris says certain water activities, such as forceful diving, can cause water to go up a person's nose in such a way that it can push its way around a protective plate between the eyes and, in rare instances, allow the parasitic amoeba to enter the brain tissue and destroy it. Hence, it is often called "brain eating."

Symptoms can include fever, stiff neck, confusion and seizures. Harris says, once infected, there is no cure. But as devastating as it is, she says, people should keep the risk in perspective.

"It's not just rare, it's extremely rare," she said.

KDHE says Hally's was just the second known case of PAM ever in the state. Nationwide, the CDC reports 132 cases from 1962 to 2013, 34 of those since 2004.

Harris says people have asked in recent weeks if they should avoid the lakes, rivers and ponds. Her answer is no, but she says people should beware of the very slight risks.

Harris says that means using nose plugs if you'll be diving or doing other activities that might force water up the nose; avoid warm, stagnant bodies of water since that is where the amoeba thrive most; don't dig in or stir up the sediment where amoeba also tend to be more present; and avoid putting your head underwater in hot springs or other warm, fresh water. This amoeba cannot survive in salt water or a properly maintained swimming pool.

One other risk not related to lakes involves using a neti pot to rinse the sinuses. Use boiled, filtered, disinfected, distilled or sterile water to ensure it is amoeba-free.

In terms of risk when it comes to summer fun, Harris says diving accidents and drowning are a much greater threat to look out for in the lakes and rivers.