A South Carolina resident is clinging to life after being infected by a rare but often deadly brain-eating amoeba.
The South Carolina Department of Health confirmed that the person was exposed to the organism while swimming in the Edisto River in Charleston County.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm that the victim was exposed to the organism Naegleria fowleri. The infection is fatal in about 95 percent of cases.
"Naegleria fowleri causes the disease primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a brain infection that leads to the destruction of brain tissue. In its early stages, symptoms of PAM may be similar to symptoms of bacterial meningitis," the CDC states on its website. "The disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days."
The organism lives in warm, fresh water. It enters through the nose and migrates upwards to the brain along the olfactory nerve, where it quickly destroys the brain tissue.
South Carolina Health Department Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell told WISTV the amoeba occurs naturally and is "all around us and is present in many warm water lakes, rivers and streams, but infection in humans is very rare."
There have been only 40 documented cases in the past 40 years. One of those was a Minnesota teenager who died just last summer after he went swimming in a freshwater lake. The summer before, a 9-year-old Kansas girl perished after playing in fresh water.
It's rare because an infection requires specific circumstances.
"First, you must be swimming in water in which the amoeba is present," Dr. Bell said. "Second, you must jump into the amoeba-containing water feet-first, allowing the water to go up your nose with enough force that the amoeba can make its way to the brain. Most commonly, exposure results in the amoeba dying before causing infection."
The best way to avoid Naegleria fowleri is by observing the following tips:
- Avoid water-related activities in warm, untreated, or poorly treated water
- Hold your nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities
- Avoid stirring sediment surrounding warm, fresh water.
According to the CDC, the symptoms of Naegleria fowleri infection include:
- Severe frontal headache
The CDC stresses a person cannot contract the infection by drinking water containing the amoeba, but rather only through the nose.