Louisiana emphasizes drinking water safe despite finding brain-eating amoeba

A close up photograph of Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that is known to attack the central nervous system. CDC's Public Image Library

A brain-eating amoeba in the water supply of a New Orleans area parish has sent scared residents into a bottled-water buying frenzy.

Louisiana state health officials last week confirmed the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri, a parasite that leads to a deadly brain infection if it enters a person's nose, was found in the St. Bernard Parish water supply by government testers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals had conducted the testing following the death of a 4-year-old Mississippi childwho had reportedly contracted the amoeba playing on a slip'n'slide that had been laying in mud for hours.

Last Friday, state health officials urged residents to take precautions by chlorinating their pools and making sure water doesn't get up their noses. The state has also been chlorinating the affected water supply to rid it of the amoeba.

Naegleria fowlerican thrive in warm, fresh waters like lakes, rivers and canals in the Southern portions of the United States.

"We are taking showers, but everything from the neck up we are using bottled water," Jamie Doerr, a long-time resident of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, La., said to CBS affiliate WWL in New Orleans on Thursday.

Brian Gab, owner of the B & G Fresh Market in Chalmette, told the Associated Press last week he had to order several times more water than he typically does.

"I would say it's probably triple," he said yesterday.

Many residents have expressed fears at drinking the water, prompting the health department on Thursday to release a "myth vs. fact" page to dispel rumors related to the water supply.

The amoeba can only infect a person by entering through the nose, which can lead to primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a usually fatal infection that causes brain swelling and tissue damage. While swimming, showering or using neti pots for nasal irrigation may present risks -- two 2011 deaths in Louisiana were tied to contaminated water in neti pots-- drinking water won't lead to the disease, say health officials.

The health department also wanted to ease concerns that the amoeba may spread to other water supplies across the state.

"It is vital that members of the public understand the risks associated with Naegleria fowleri, which is why we have worked with federal and local officials to share information about the situation in St. Bernard Parish," state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said in a statement. "But we also want people to understand that our water is safe to drink and that, in areas where the amoeba has not been found, there is little risk of contracting it from the drinking water supply."

Infections caused by the amoeba are rare. There have only been 128 infections reported in the U.S. between 1962 and 2012, with only one documented survivor. However, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl, Kali Hardig, recently became the second American to survive the infection when she wasdischarged from the hospitalearlier in September.

Hardig had contracted the amoeba after a trip to a now-shuttered Little Rock water park built over a sandy-bottomed lake this summer.

Residents' fears spilled over in a town hall Thursday night, according to WWL, with parish officials pointing fingers at the state for delays in notifying the parish of the contamination.

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