A recent report of a death from a specific type of organism that causes brain disease has millions of people concerned about going swimming. The loss of life from this disease is devastating, but there’s actually almost no reason why people should stop going to the U.S. National White Water Center (WWC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where officials are still not positive the female from Ohio was exposed to the disease-causing organism.
Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba species that causes an extremely rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Less than ten cases per year have been reported in the United States for the past 50 years, with just 37 infections reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during 2006 and 2015. However rare the disease may be, infections do occur as seen in the unfortunate report of an Ohio female visiting the WWC with a church youth group.
It’s difficult to resist feeling a little bit afraid after hearing this story on the news, especially since the media refers to the amoeba as “brain-eating.” The reality is that N. fowleri breaks down brain tissue, causing death from brain swelling. Meningitis, or the infection of the brain and/or spinal cord, is not unique to N. fowleri. Meningitis occurs much more often as a result of a viral infection than from an amoeba or other parasite.
Additionally, it is important to note that you are only at risk for primary amebic meningoencephalitis if N. fowleri goes up your nose. If you swallow contaminated water, you’re fine. If you’re swimming in the ocean, you’re safe (N. fowleri doesn’t like salty water). The amoeba is only dangerous if it goes up your nose, which contributes to the rarity of this disease.
“The number of yearly cases of death resulting from this rare amoebic infection is so low that there is absolutely no reason to think that the White Water Center is any more dangerous than a lake or any other fresh water body of water,” said molecular biologist Christy Esmahan, PhD. “The media likes to sensationalize rare infections, but the truth is that you are far more likely to die of drowning in a pool than of contracting this infection at the WWC or anywhere else.”
Many Facebook users and Twitter scrollers are probably more likely to click “share” or “retweet” than they are to actually read any of the dozens of news stories covering this incident. Let’s look at some of the lead titles:
“Teen dies from brain-eating amoeba infection after visit to Whitewater Center”
“Brain-Eating Amoeba Eyed in Death of Ohio Teen”
“Ohio woman dies from infection caused by ‘brain-eating amoeba’”
Am I hooked after reading these titles? Yes. Is my mom canceling her trip to the WWC this weekend? Most likely. Does this title really describe the situation? Not entirely.
Let’s go over some of the key points:
- Meningitis from this particular amoeba is extremely rare. You’re no more likely to contract this disease from the WWC in Charlotte than you are at any lake, river, or other non-saline body of water in the world.
- Officials are not even sure if it was actually the WWC where the amoeba was contracted. The WWC is still running under regular operation, and scientists are testing the water for amoeba right now.
- You are not at danger from contracting meningitis from this amoeba by drinking contaminated water. It has to go up your nose to be dangerous.
Know the facts, stay informed, and don’t be afraid!