Eddie Gray, 59, of Guilford County, North Carolina, died on July 22 after contracting the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. Gray was exposed to the deadly organism after swimming in a freshwater lake on July 12.
Naegleria fowleri travels up the nose to the brain where it attacks brain tissue, causing a condition known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). Laboratory testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed Gray’s death resulted from the amoeba.
“Our sympathies are with the family and loved ones,” State Epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D. said. “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.”
Gray Contracted Naegleria fowleri After Visiting a Water Park on a Freshwater Lake
Gray was exposed to the amoeba after visiting Fantasy Lake Water Park with his mission group from Sedge Garden United Methodist Church in Kernersville. Located in Hope Mills, the water park is set on a freshwater man-made lake and has a variety of activities including slides, Tarzan swings, and towers for jumping into the water.
“Our church family is deeply saddened by this loss and our prayers are with the family in this time of grief. Our focus now is offering support and care for all of the family, as well as our larger church family.” Sedge Garden United Methodist Church Reverend Justin Lowe told FOX 8’s Michelle Wolfe.
Naegleri fowleri may be Present in any Freshwater Lake, Pond or River
Naegleria fowleri naturally occurs in many lakes, rivers, ponds, and hot spring in the United States but cannot survive in saltwater. Infections are the most common during summer months when the temperatures are consistently high for several days and water levels drop.
The CDC says that hundreds of millions of people swim in freshwater each year without incident but “it is unknown why certain persons become infected with the amoebae while millions of others exposed to warm recreational fresh waters do not, including those who were swimming with people who became infected.”
Naegleria fowleri is only harmful when the organism enters the nose. Diving, water skiing or any activity that involves someone submerging, or freshwater being forced up the nose, increases risk of exposure. The amoeba does not present a danger if swallowed.
According to the , CDC researchers have attempted to determine if a certain concentration of Naegleria fowleri may create greater risk, however, there’s currently no accurate way to determine the numbers of amoebae in the water.
Naegleria fowleri Symptoms
Symptoms typically appear several days after exposure. Victims typically experience severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to a stiff neck, seizures, and coma.
The CDC noted that only a few laboratories in the United States can test for Naegleria fowleri. Diagnosis is made by looking for the organisms or traces of its presence in a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), biopsy or tissue samples. Seventy-five percent of diagnoses are made after the patient’s death.
Naegleria fowleri deaths are rare but the condition is considered 97% fatal. There have only been 145 known cases of infection in the United States between 1962 -2018. During that time, 20 states reported deaths from the brain-eating amoeba. Texas had 36 cases, Florida had 35, California had nine, South Carolina and Arizona both have eight. There are only five documented Naegleria fowleri survivors in North America.
Health Officials Are Offering Tips to Prevent Infection
Local health officials are currently working with Fantasy Park to provide information and guidance on how to keep visitors safe. They are suggesting that anyone swimming in freshwater use nose clips, hold their nose shut or keep their head above water. Fantasy Lake has issued an advisory on their website warning visitors to take all necessary precautions when swimming in the lake.
“Swimming in and of itself is not so much of concern,” Duane Holder, interim director of the Cumberland County Health Department told WRAL. “Now, diving, jumping in from heights and maybe some of the forceful activity of submerging, those are situations I would make sure I had nose clips, nose plugs, or I’d pinch my nose if I knew I was going to be forcibly entering the water.”
Water-related activities in freshwater should be avoided when temperatures are high and water levels are low. Health experts are also advising swimmers to not dig or stir up sediment while swimming in freshwater areas.
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In 2013, 12-year-old Kali Hardig contracted the brain-eating organism after swimming. The girl received miltefosine within 36 hours of her diagnosis, her body was cooled to reduce brain swelling and she made a full recovery.
That same year, an 8-year-old boy who also contracted Naegleria fowleri, was treated only with miltefosine several days after developing symptoms and suffered permanent brain damage.
In 2016,16-year-old Sebastian DeLeon received the same treatment as Kali Hardig and fully recovered. Doctors are crediting DeLeon’s rapid diagnosis and treatment with saving his life and are hoping to use his case as a model for educating healthcare workers and the public about Naegleria fowleri.