Kansas reports brain-eating amoeba death

It's like something out of a horror movie. That's what people are saying about the "brain-eating" amoeba blamed for the deaths of three teens in recent weeks. The single-celled organisms go by the scientific name Naegleria folweri, and are believed to have infected the teens as they swam in lakes or rivers. Are the bugs found in swimming pools too? How do they get into the brain? And what can be done to limit the risk? For answers to those and other questions about Naegleria, keep clicking... CDC Public Health Image Library

TOPEKA, Kan. - A Kansas resident died this week from what was likely a rare infection by a brain-eating amoeba, giving the state its first documented case, public health officials said Friday.

State and local officials warned residents to avoid activities in warm rivers, lakes and other bodies of heated, fresh water, including ponds near power plants. They said people shouldn't dig into or stir up sediment or put their head under water in such places.

Single deaths from such infections also have been reported this summer in Florida, Louisiana and Virginia. The Centers for Disease Control has said about 120 cases, nearly all of them fatal, have been reported since the early 1960s.

The Kansas victim was from Sedgwick County, but health officials declined to release more information to protect the person's privacy. Sedgwick County spokeswoman Amanda Matthews said the person apparently went swimming in August in the city lake in Winfield, about 30 miles southeast of Wichita, then entered a hospital Aug. 19 complaining of headaches, developed breathing problems and died five days later.

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Matthews said the CDC confirmed Thursday that a specimen from the victim initially tested positive for the amoeba. She said more testing will be conducted by the CDC, and the county is awaiting a coroner's report as well, and more information might not be available for several weeks.

"It's unknown, really, why it causes such a rare infection," Matthews said. "Not a lot is known about it because it is so rare."

In Winfield, City Manager Warren Porter said notices have been posted at the city lake office and the swimming area. The lake, with more than 1,100 surface acres, is the only source of drinking water for the city of about 12,300 residents, but the water is treated after it leaves the lake, using chlorine and another, more sophisticated system.

"You couldn't find enough chlorine to disinfect a lake," Porter noted. "The only way to avoid this is to stay out of that water."

The amoeba is Naegleria fowleri, and it gets up the nose, burrows up into the skull and destroys brain tissue. It's found in warm lake and rivers during the summer, particularly when temperatures rise and water levels fall.

Health officials can't say why a few people get the fatal nervous system condition while others don't after swimming or other activities in waters with the amoeba. The amoeba has been found in waters up to the Canadian border, said Miranda Myrick, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"You would see this in the South more than places north of that because water would stay warmer longer," she said. "There isn't any testing in place for this as far as regular water inspections."

Porter said that earlier this summer, water temperatures at Winfield's lake were higher than they'd been since 1980. They're now 10 degrees lower than those summer highs, he said.

Myrick noted that while there are reliable tests for detecting such amoeba in water, they're "extremely slow and very expensive."

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