A rare, but deadly water-borne parasite has claimed its third victim this summer. The brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri has killed a 16-year-old Florida girl and 9-year-old Virginia boy. Now a Louisiana man has died from using infected water in his Neti Pot.
The parasite, in the family Naegleria, lives in warm ponds or lakes, generally in southern regions. Naegleria fowleri enters the body through the nasal passages, bores through the skull and feeds on brain tissue. Children are the most common victims, usually contacting with the amoeba while swimming or doing water sports. The Florida teen fell ill after swimming and the Virginia child from a fishing camp.
Parents are generally advised to keep children from contact with water from small ponds and stagnant bodies of water as biological hazards abound. River water is notoriously toxic as well. For example, in Michigan, we occasionally have trouble with E. coli levels in local water sources. The DNR monitors these hazards and closes beaches when the level gets too high. Rivers and lakes are more vulnerable to biohazards after a heavy rain when waste is flushed from sewer systems upstream. The Department of Environmental Quality website monitors water contaminants and posts advisories.
The Louisiana man, the most recent Naegleria fowleri victim, is the more rare adult victim. He contracted the brain infection using a nasal flush system. The Neti Pot, a little teapot-shaped receptacle, irrigates the sinuses with a saline-and-water solution. The man used tap water from his home. Louisiana officials delved into his June death after the strange spate of deaths in similar circumstances.
Though he had died as a result of using tainted tap water in his saline rinse, the city water system did not contain Naegleria fowleri. I use the Neti Pot system, under my physician's advice. It is meant to be used with sterilized water, but my doctor has said that tap water is acceptable as long as the salt solution is added. Our water in Michigan is already highly sanitized. Visitors often say they can smell and taste the bleach in the water.
I inadvertently used the rinse without adding salt once. Non-saline water, whether sterilized or not, burns and causes inflammation. If he used the saline solution in his Neti Pot it is surprising that the salt didn't kill the amoeba before it had a chance to attack. Naegleria fowleri thrives in fresh water because salt water would likely destroy it. In view of this latest death, Neti Pot users should always flush with purified water and not rely on the salt to kill bacteria.
Our water in Michigan comes from Great Lakes sources. Although our lakes are very large, they are nevertheless fresh water. It takes Lake Michigan some time to warm sufficiently for swimming. This year, in July, the water was still at 50-60 degree temperatures at times. The smaller the lake the warmer the water gets. Bacteria live and feed in warmer waters.
Visiting in Baton Rouge, La., recently, I noticed that the water didn't seem as sanitary. Without using the purifier, the water had a brackish taste. We visited a water park and the structures had algae, rust and debris on them. At our Michigan water parks, the air is redolent with bleach and structures are very clean. I did not smell bleach nor did the water look as clear at the Louisiana facility. One member of our group was injured at the water park. Although it was only a slight graze, it became infected and took some time to heal.
Marilisa Kinney Sachteleben writes from 22 years parenting four children, 25 years teaching K-8 and special needs and several decades in health research.