OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A child likely died of a rare infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba after swimming in an eastern Nebraska river, health officials said, making it the second possible such death in the Midwest this summer and adding to the question of whether climate change plays a role.
The Douglas County Health Department, based in Omaha, Nebraska, said Wednesday that doctors believe the child died of primary meningoencephalitis, a usually fatal infection caused by the amoeba naegleria fowleri. Health officials believe the child came into contact with the amoeba on Sunday while swimming in the Elkhorn River west of Omaha.
Officials have not released the child’s identity.
Last month, a Missouri resident died from the same infection likely caused by the amoeba in the Lake of Three Fires in southwest Iowa. Iowa officials closed the lake beach as a precaution for nearly three weeks.
People usually become infected when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose while swimming or diving in lakes and rivers. Other sources have been documented, including contaminated tap water in a Houston-area city in 2020. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, progression to a stiff neck, loss of balance, hallucinations, and seizures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that naegleria fowleri infections are rare—there are about three cases in the United States each year—but that these infections are overwhelmingly fatal.
There were 154 cases reported between 1962 and 2021 in the US, with only four survivors, according to the CDC. Of those, 71 cases were reported between 2000 and 2021. Texas and Florida recorded the most infections with 39 and 37 cases respectively, and the amoeba is usually found in southern states because it thrives in waters warmer than 30 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
But infections have migrated north in recent years, including two cases in Minnesota since 2010, Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay House noted during a news conference Thursday.
“Our areas are getting warmer,” he said. “As things warm up, the water warms up and the water levels drop because of the drought, you see this organism is much happier and more typically growing in those situations.”
According to the National Water Information System, the surface water temperature near where the child was swimming was between 86 and 92 degrees.
Jacob Lorenzo-Morales, a researcher at Universidad de La Laguna in the Canary Islands who has studied naegleria fowleri, said Thursday that the increase in infections since 2000 may be due to two factors: better knowledge and diagnosis of the disease and increasing temperature in water bodies providing “a perfect environment” for the amoeba to thrive.
Researcher Sutherland Maciver, who has studied the amoeba at the Brain Science Discovery Center at Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland, says not all infections are reported and that the 430 cases ever reported worldwide are almost certainly an undercount. And, he said, scientists can’t say for sure that the Nebraska case is directly attributable to climate change.
The two researchers authored a paper titled “Is Naegleria fowleri an emerging parasite?” which examined the factors behind the increase in reported cases.
Health officials recommend that freshwater swimmers plug their noses, avoid putting their heads under water, and avoid activities such as water skiing and tubing that could force water into the nose, eyes or mouth. You cannot get infected by drinking contaminated water.