The brain-eating amoeba will cause a rare infection that has only been diagnosed 143 times in the United States in the last 55 years

Public health officials with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Cumberland County Department of Public Health from the United States are reporting that an individual died after developing an illness caused by an amoeba that is naturally present in warm freshwater during the summer.

The individual became ill after swimming in Fantasy Lake Water Park in Cumberland County on July 12, 2019. Laboratory testing at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the individual’s illness was caused by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba (one-celled living organism) commonly found in warm freshwater.

Naegleria fowleri, referred to as the brain-eating amoeba, does not cause illness if swallowed but can be fatal if forced up the nose, as can occur during diving, water-skiing or other water activities.

These rare infections usually occur when it is hot for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels. Symptoms of Naegleria fowleri infection start with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to stiff neck, seizures and coma.

Local health officials are working with the water park to provide guidance and education about the presence of the brain-eating amoeba and how to take precautions when in natural bodies of freshwater.

“Our sympathies are with the family and loved ones,” said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D.

“People should be aware that this organism is present in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs across North Carolina, so be mindful as you swim or enjoy water sports.”

Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, with only 145 known infected individuals in the U.S. (between zero and eight cases annually) from 1962 through 2018. North Carolina had five cases during that time period. The brain-eating amoeba can cause severe illness up to nine days after exposure. A person cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking water and the amoeba is not found in salt water.

As there is no means to eliminate the brain-eating amoeba from fresh water lakes, in warmer areas where this infection has been more common, recommended precautions include:

  • Limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

This is not the first time that the brain-eating amoeba has killed a man in the US. It was reported in October last year that a New Jersey man died after contracting Naegleria fowleri. It’s unclear exactly how the man, 29-year-old Fabrizio Stabile, got the amoeba, but a gofundme page to raise funds to create awareness about the single-celled organism says, “Fabrizio was mowing his lawn on the afternoon of Sunday September 16, he suddenly experienced a severe headache and went to lie down.”

The brain-eating amoeba can be fatal if forced up the nose

“After taking medicine for the headache, he ended up sleeping through the night, and when he awoke Monday morning, the headache had not gone away. He asked his mother for more medicine and went back to sleep. When his mother went to check on him in the early afternoon, Fabrizio could not get out of bed and could not speak coherently. His mother called 911 and EMTs rushed him to the hospital.

At first, Fabrizio’s symptoms (brain swelling and fever) appeared consistent with bacterial meningitis and he was quickly sedated and treated with the appropriate medication and aggressive neurological protocol. Unfortunately, Fabrizio was not responding to these measures and his condition was rapidly deteriorating. He had been tested for a multitude of illnesses caused by various bacteria and viruses, but the results were coming back negative or inconclusive. Finally on Thursday, one of the test results came back positive. As family and friends huddled in the ICU waiting room, we were delivered a devastating blow.

Fabrizio’s cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tested positive for the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri,* which caused a rare infection that has only been diagnosed 143 times in the United States in the last 55 years. The worst-case scenario was unfolding in front of our eyes as we learned that this infection results in a 98% fatality rate. By the time Fabrizio was diagnosed, it was too late to administer the drug that had previously been provided to three of the only five known survivors in North America. Even so, this drug is not easily accessible.

We were hopeful until the end, but unfortunately, on Friday September 21st we learned the heart-breaking news that Fabrizio was pronounced brain dead as a result of this brain-eating amoeba. “

The Fabrizio Stabile Foundation for Naegleria Fowleri Awareness was created to bring awareness to, and educate as many people as possible about, this rare and preventable infection. It aims to do this through an annual fundraiser in Fabrizio’s memory in hopes that this will not affect another family.

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