Monday, August 15, 2011

Deadly Amoeba

In a survival situation, it is imperative to have access to freshwater to drink. But you can't simply bend down and suck water out of a pond or stream with impunity. There are organisms in the water that are dangerous to human health, the most common of which are giardia and cryptosporidium. 

But it gets worse. Consider the case of 16-year-old Courtney Nash. Two days after she went swimming in the St. Johns River in Mims, Florida, 44 miles east of Orlando, she died of an infection that she contracted from the water in that river. 

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the killer was a deadly amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. Brevard County health officials said they believe the parasite entered Courtney's nose while she was swimming, and worked its way to her brain where it caused a lethal infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). 

The disease spreads rapidly, leaving the victim suffering symptoms that include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of the senses of smell and taste, and a stiff neck. In most cases, death occurs within 3 to 7 days. The good news is that the disease cannot be spread from one person to another, because the amoeba itself has to enter the victim's brain in order to do the damage. 

The bad news is that the amoeba is commonly found in lakes and rivers. A health advisory issued by the State of Virginia warns that the amoeba proliferates in stagnant freshwater lakes, ponds, streams and rivers when temperatures climb into the 80s. 

Officials advise safety precautions when swimming:
  • Shower with soap before and after the swim
  • Be careful not to swallow pool, lake or river water. 
My issue with these precautions is that, if the amoeba gets into your nasal passages, a shower is not going to stop its destructive trek to your brain. The safest course of action is to keep your face out of the water altogether. If you are camping or in a survival situation and want to wash your face, do it with water you have boiled and then allowed to cool. Boiling will kill all organisms in the water, leaving it safe to use for ingestion and hygiene.

If you must cross a body of water where the stated conditions exist, take every precaution to make sure you don't get your face in the water.

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