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Killer amoeba found in Louisiana water system

Last Updated Aug 28, 2014 10:57 AM EDT

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Testing has confirmed the presence of a killer amoeba in a water system serving three towns in St. John the Baptist Parish in southern Louisiana, state health officials said Wednesday.

The Department of Health and Hospitals said the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was found in the St. John Water District 1 water system, which serves 12,577 people in the towns of Reserve, Garyville and Mt. Airy.

Officials said there are currently no known cases of illness related to the amoeba in the parish or elsewhere in the state.

The water system was sampled as part of DHH's surveillance program launched earlier this month. During the testing, DHH discovered the system was not in compliance with the state's emergency rule requiring water systems to maintain a certain minimum disinfectant residual level needed to control the amoeba.

DHH ordered the minimum levels after the amoeba was found in St. Bernard and DeSoto parish drinking water last year. The brain-eating amoeba killed a 4-year-old boy in St. Bernard Parish last year, after he got the lethal infection while playing on a slip 'n slide. It was later discovered in DeSoto Parish Waterworks District No. 1 as well.

St. John Water District 1 is the third water system in Louisiana to test positive for the amoeba. The water system will perform a free-chlorine burn for two months to kill the amoeba. State and parish officials said the water will remain safe to drink during this time.

"In previous cases in Louisiana, this action has been effective in controlling the amoeba," the state said in a news release.

Officials said residents may notice a change in the smell and taste of the water during the chlorine burn, but they say the water will remain safe to drink.

The Naegleria fowleri amoeba can cause a rare but deadly brain infection known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that is almost always fatal. The amoeba can only cause disease if it is ingested through the nose and enters the brain; drinking the water is not dangerous.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said affected residents should avoid having water enter their nose while bathing or swimming. "The parish Utilities Department is taking immediate actions to fully chlorinate the water system and eliminate the threat," she said. "As more information becomes available, it will be released to the public."