News of amoeba in water scares many in St. Bernard

“It’s scary, it’s frustrating, to say the least,” Marquize said, waiting in line to pick up her daughter at Arabi Elementary School.

Across St. Bernard Parish on Friday, hours after the state confirmed that the parish’s water was contaminated by the parasites, residents wondered whether they should be frightened, and if so, exactly how frightened they should be.

Parish officials hurried to try to rid the water system of the organisms that killed a 4-year-old child who likely contracted the infection from a Slip ’n Slide. And public-health experts sought to root out misconceptions about the amoebas, reassuring residents that the water is safe to drink, for the disease can be contracted only if contaminated water is forced all the way up one’s nose and into the brain.

Still, many in the line of parents waiting to pick up their kids from school had crates of bottled water stacked up in the back seats. The school system turned off the drinking fountains, canceled swimming lessons and closed the pool, all in “an abundance of caution.” One person called the Sheriff’s Office to ask if her kiddie pool remains safe to swim in.

“I think everybody is overreacting, everybody is flipping out, but to me, it’s not so scary,” said Samantha Thompson, a bartender at the Daq Shaq in Arabi, who said her customers streamed in all day terrified of the water. She spent Thursday night researching amoebas online, and came away with the conclusion that she should not panic about putting her 3-year-old in the bathtub.

Public-health experts say the same.

“There is no need to panic,” said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana’s state epidemiologist. “Everyone has probably been exposed to it and nothing has happened. The risk is very small, the risk is probably as small as (the chance of) winning the Powerball.”

The amoebas, called Naegleria fowleri, are common, Ratard said. They’re found in lakes, rivers, streams, ditches, especially in warm climates like the American South. Millions of people are exposed, said Dr. Fred Lopez, an infectious disease specialist at LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans.

Tap water is chlorinated to kill the amoebas.

And it is very rare that a person becomes infected. Between 2003 and 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 31 infections in the United States, and just 128 since 1962.

It is almost always a death sentence. Of those, there are only two known survivors.

The situation in St. Bernard began in early August, when a Mississippi boy visiting a relative died, and nobody could figure out what had killed him.

His brain tissue was sent to the CDC, Ratard said. Scientists there analyzed it for everything — viruses, bacteria, parasites. In mid-August, they alerted state officials that he died from amebic meningoencephalitis, a rare form of meningitis caused by the amoeba climbing into the brain, destroying the tissue and causing swelling.

At first symptoms are relatively mild, including headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck. But they grow to include confusion, lack of balance, seizures and hallucinations. Within two weeks, victims are usually dead.

Doctors went back to the child’s mother to try to piece together where he contracted the parasite. She helped them narrow the possibilities to the Slip ’n Slide at their relative’s house in St. Bernard Parish.

Parish President David Peralta said that every week the parish collects water from 32 sites, chosen randomly across the parish, and sends the samples to the state health department, which checks that it is being treated with proper amounts of chlorine.

He said the readings have never before dipped below the minimum level at any of the 32 testing sites.

But the Department of Health and Hospitals took samples from the house and found the amoeba on the water slide, in a hose and in a toilet tank in the house.

Peralta said the parish immediately began flushing the water supply with chlorine.

Ratard said officials took into account that two years ago, a man in St. Bernard died from the same infection after using infected tap water in a neti pot, a device that forces water into the nose to clear out sinuses.

It is “extremely unusual” that there would be two cases of the rare infection in two years in the same area, Ratard said.

On Sept. 4, the state collected samples from 12 hydrants and faucets that connect directly to the parish’s water supply. They sent hundreds of liters of water to the CDC for testing.

They received word Thursday afternoon that the water from two fire hydrants and two faucets, all in Arabi and Violent, tested positive for the amoeba. At those sites, on the outer reaches of the water system, the level of chlorine was either very low or non-existent.

Ratard commended the parish for acting quickly to alert residents and begin jacking up the level of chlorine in the water.

Peralta said the parish and the state are investigating why the level of chlorine dropped in those areas, noting that it can be caused by broken water pipes or other failures of infrastructure.

The state health department said it will work with the parish to continue testing various sites every day until the level of chlorine reaches a safe level across the parish.

In the meantime, some in St. Bernard continue to worry.

Maryanne Cerise said her 9-year-old grandson splashed around in a pool in Arabi just days ago.

“We’re nervous,” she said. “We’re trying not to worry about it. But if he gets a headache, we’re taking him right down to the hospital.”

Others said they’re keeping their kids out of the pool, forbidding them to play in sprinklers and keeping a close eye on them at bath time.

State health officials issued an advisory, warning residents to avoid sniffing water up their noses, jumping into the water, allowing children to play with hoses or sprinklers and using contaminated tapwater in a neti pot. They suggested that everyone keep their pools chlorinated, scrub any kiddie pools and run their faucets for at least five minutes before using the water.

“It’s not big fancy science,” Ratard said. “You know where your nose is, you know where the top of your nose is. Make sure water does not go up there. That’s the only place these amoeba can get to your brain.”