Lily Mae Avant started feeling ill Sunday, Sept. 8. Her doctors thought it was just a virus, but when she became confused and unresponsive, her family whisked her to an emergency room. She was flown to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, where a spinal tap, a test that takes a sample of fluid around the spinal cord, determined that she’d been infected by the amoeba, according to a Facebook page started by her family. She died there Monday.
Although it’s uncertain where Lily contracted the amoeba, KCEN-TV reported that she had gone swimming Labor Day weekend in the Brazos River near her home outside Waco.
Naegleria fowleri can be found in warm freshwater -- lakes, rivers, and hot springs -- as well as soil. While the amoeba is common, infections are rare. Between 2009 and 2018, only 34 cases were reported in the U.S., most in Southern states. Nearly all came from recreational water, but a few people were infected after using contaminated tap water for nasal irrigation. One person’s infection came after playing on a backyard slip-and-slide with contaminated tap water.
Infections happen only when water containing the amoeba gets into the body through the nose. The amoeba can travel from the nose up to the brain, where it destroys tissue. Drinking contaminated water won’t cause an infection, and it can’t be passed from one person to another.
When infections do happen, they’re very deadly: Since 1962, just four people have survived. “Since it’s so rare, we don’t know why a few people get sick while millions who swim in natural bodies of water don't,” Chris Van Deusen, of the Texas Department of State Health Services, says in a statement. “Because the organism is common in lakes and rivers, we don't recommend people specifically avoid bodies of water where someone has contracted the illness.”
He offered some measures that may help:
- Stay out of warm freshwater when the water temperature is high and water levels are low.
- Avoid putting your head under the water in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters.
- Hold your nose shut or use nose clips when you’re in warm freshwater lakes, rivers, or hot springs.
- Avoid digging in or stirring up sediment when you’re in shallow, warm freshwater.
- Use only sterile, distilled, or lukewarm previously boiled water for nasal irrigation or sinus flushes.
Symptoms of an infection are similar to bacterial meningitis. If you have a sudden fever, headache, stiff neck, and vomiting days after swimming in warm freshwater -- or anytime -- seek medical help right away.