Tests from federal health officials have confirmed the presence of a rare brain-eating amoeba in four sites in the St. Bernard Parish water system, the state Department of Health and Hospitals said Thursday.
But even though the water in some areas carries the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, health officials stressed that there is a low risk of contracting any disease since people cannot be infected just by drinking the contaminated water. The amoeba can affect a person only if it gets into his or her nose.
“The water is safe to drink,” State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said. “Infection from this amoeba is very rare.”
Public-health officials earlier this month confirmed that a 4-year-old Mississippi boy who was visiting St. Bernard died in August after he contracted encephalitis from the amoeba, which was found in a contaminated water supply at a home near Violet.
When infections occur, the water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose and is pushed into the brain. The boy who died was playing on a slip-and-slide that had water from a contaminated supply.
Public-health specialists said it is difficult to pinpoint why the amoeba appears, but that low levels of chlorine could potentially be a factor. Water treated with chlorine is unlikely to test positive for the single-celled organisms.
St. Bernard began to flush its water lines with more chlorine last week in an attempt to minimize the threat of the bacteria.
“We know that chlorine kills Naegleria fowleri, which is why it was critical that the parish proactively began flushing its water system with additional chlorine last week,” said J.T. Lane, the state’s assistant secretary for public health.
The parish will continue to flush its lines for several weeks until the chlorine reaches recommended levels. The state Department of Health and Hospitals is working with parish leaders to ensure that chlorine levels are monitored daily, Lane said.
Parish President David Peralta last week declined to specify the location of the home where the boy became infected, saying only that it is near Violet and not near the spot where the last person became infected in St. Bernard two years ago.
Thursday’s confirmation of the amoeba’s presence came from four sites in Violet and Arabi. DHH scientists pulled samples from fire hydrants and faucets connected directly to the water lines.
Precautionary measures health officials suggest include:
- Not jumping into or putting your head underwater in bathtubs or pools.
- Not allowing children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers, since they might accidentally squirt water up their noses.
- Running faucets in tubs and sinks for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes. This practice is particularly important the first time a tap is used after a water utility raises the disinfectant level.
The 4-year-old’s cause of death was identified as primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a rare form of meningitis caused by the amoeba getting into the brain, destroying delicate tissue, causing swelling and — almost always — leading to death in a matter of days.
Symptoms are mild at first and appear about five days after infection. They include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck. Within days the symptoms grow more severe, adding confusion, a lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. The disease progresses rapidly, usually leading to death in less than two weeks.
One-hundred twenty-eight people have reportedly contracted the disease in the U.S. since 1962, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only three have survived.