DHH: Child's death linked to rare amoeba

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A child who died from encephalitis caused by a rare and deadly amoeba contracted the illness while visiting a home in St. Bernard Parish, federal and state health regulators said Thursday.

While water samples taken from the home tested positive for the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals says initial tests of the parish water system are negative for it.

DHH said some tests showed low levels of chlorine in parts of the system, so the parish is flushing it and more tests will be conducted.

The rare infection caused by the amoeba has been associated with three deaths traced to water in Louisiana since 2011. Two people died that year, in addition to the death announced Thursday. The child died in mid-August but the cause was not confirmed until Thursday following specialized testing by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Christina Stephens, a DHH spokeswoman.

"We are working with the parish to make sure precautionary measures are being taken while we await additional test results on samples taken from the area's water system," said Assistant Secretary for Public Health J.T. Lane.

"The CDC's testing detected no evidence of the parasite, however out of abundance of caution, steps were taken immediately to continue to ensure a safe water supply in St. Bernard Parish," said David Peralta, parish president. "We will continue enhanced monitoring and testing of the water supply."

DHH said the parish also began treating its water system Thursday afternoon with "safe levels of additional chlorine and flushing any trace of contaminants form the water system by pushing water through the lines."

Resident may smell a strong odor of chlorine in the water, which might also have a different taste and slight discoloration as a result of the flushing process, the department said. But DHH said the water will remain safe to drink.

It also said the illness cannot be contracted through drinking water.

Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic single-celled living amoeba that is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers. It can cause a rare brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal.

According to the CDC, people can reduce the risk of Naegleria fowleri infection by limiting the amount of water going up a person's nose and lowering the chances that Naegleria fowleri may be in the water.

Exposure to the infection typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater lakes and rivers. In very rare instances, infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources — such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated tap water less than 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit — enters the nose when people submerge their heads or irrigate their sinuses with devices such as a neti pot.

Infections are very rare. In the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, 32 infections were reported in the U.S. Of those cases, 30 people were infected by contaminated recreational water and two people were infected by water from a geothermal drinking water supply.

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