A Douglas County child died this week of suspected infection with the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which may have been contracted while swimming in the Elkhorn River, according to the Douglas County Health Department.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is performing additional tests to confirm infection, according to the health department. Health officials declined to provide additional information about the child, such as age or gender.
The single-celled microscopic organism is commonly referred to as the “brain-eating amoeba”. It can cause a rare but almost always fatal brain infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PMA, when water containing the amoeba rushes through the nose and reaches the brain, according to the CDC.
If confirmed, the infant’s death would be the first known death of Naegleria fowleri in state history, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
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Naegleria fowleri is found in many freshwater sources such as rivers, lakes and streams and is identified farther north as previously colder regions become hotter and drier.
While millions of people are exposed to freshwater sources for recreation each year, fewer than eight infections are identified in the United States each year, said state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Donahue.
Infections typically occur later in the summer in warmer waters with slower flow, particularly in July, August and September, he said.
A Missouri resident died after being infected with the organism while swimming in late June at Lake of the Three Fires State Park in southwestern Iowa. Iowa health officials, working with the CDC, later confirmed the presence of the organism in the lake. Iowa officials closed a beach in the park for a time, but reopened it in late July after testing was completed.
Douglas County health officials have urged residents to take precautions when exposed to fresh water sources.
Donahue said limiting the chance of fresh water entering the nose is the best way to reduce the risk of infection. Behaviors associated with infection include diving or jumping into water, immersing the head underwater, or other activities such as water skiing or high-speed tubing that can raise blood pressure. water forcefully through the nose.
Swimmers can reduce their risk by keeping their heads above water, using nose clips, or covering their noses when going underwater, including in hot springs and other untreated warm waters. Swimmers should also avoid digging or stirring up sediment on the bottom of lakes or rivers.
People cannot become infected by drinking contaminated water or swimming in a properly cleaned, maintained and disinfected swimming pool.
According to state health officials, the CDC generally does not recommend testing untreated rivers and lakes for the organism because it occurs naturally and there is no established relationship between detection and amoeba concentration and risk of infection.
Symptoms of an infection usually appear one to 12 days later, according to Douglas County health officials. They may include headache, fever, and nausea or vomiting. These symptoms can progress to a stiff neck, confusion, seizures, and other neurological disorders.
“We can only imagine the devastation this family must feel,” Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said in a statement. “And our deepest condolences go with them. We can honor that child’s memory by learning about the risk and then taking action to prevent infection.