An unfortunate 59-year-old man who was just trying to unwind for the weekend at Fantasy Lake Water Park in Cumberland County, NC, recently died after being infected with a rare amoeba that preys on the brain. Naegleria fowleri (otherwise known as the brain-eating amoeba) is a single-celled life-form that usually infests warm freshwater. Before this turns water parks into nightmare fuel, there is an explanation.
“These rare infections usually occur when it is hot for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels,” the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said in an official statement. “Symptoms of Naegleria fowleri infection start with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to stiff neck, seizures and coma.”
What’s even more bizarre is that the lethal amoeba won’t make you sick if swallowed, but can be fatal if it’s swimming in water forced up your nose, because the nose is basically a one-way passage to the brain. At least human infection hardly ever happens. From 1962 through 2018, there have only been 145 infections that we know of. That doesn’t mean zero risk of what the CDC defines as primary amebic meningoencephalitis. The amoeba can rear its ugly microscopic head up to nine days after it invades your brain, and the prognosis will almost certainly be negative.
How N. fowleri managed to creep into a water park when it normally thrives in freshwater lakes is a mystery. Anything could have transplanted the parasite from its habitat to Fantasy Lake, where the water was warm enough for it to keep multiplying (and possibly under-chlorinated).
Amoeba reproduce asexually. You only need one for binary fission to happen and end up with a swarm of them before you know it.
"Our sympathies are with the family and loved ones," said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore, M.D., of the victim. "People should be aware that this organism is present in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs across North Carolina, so be mindful as you swim or enjoy water sports."
Your best bet is to just avoid making a splash in warm water, especially in the southern states where the amoeba is most common. The NCDHHS recommends keeping any water from going up your nose, whether you use a nose plug or just hold your nose. The worst danger zone is shallow warm freshwater. Our advice? Don’t risk swimming in a lake in the summer heat. Just don’t.
This is proof that even chlorine can’t kill everything.