Child’s death possibly caused by amoeba infection from Elkhorn River

Douglas County Health Department awaiting confirmation from CDC testing
For the first time in Nebraska history, a child has died from a suspected brain-eating amoeba. (Source: WOWT)
Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 5:22 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2022 at 5:40 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Douglas County health officials said Wednesday that they suspect a local child’s recent death was caused by a brain-eating amoeba from the Elkhorn River.

The CDC is working to confirm that the death was caused by primary amebic meningoencephalitis after the child went swimming in the river on Sunday.

In the meantime, the Douglas County Health Department is urging extra caution when coming into contact with freshwater sources like rivers, lakes, and streams.

Naegleria fowleri is present in many freshwater sources and is being identified further north as previously cooler regions become warmer and drier,” the DCHD release states.

A similar case led to the death of a Missouri resident who was likely infected while swimming in an Iowa lake last month. The lake was closed to swimmers for several days while the CDC tested the waters to confirm the presence of Naegleria fowleri.

But a news release from the Nebraska Department Health and Human Services said “the CDC does not recommend testing untreated rivers and lakes for Naegleria fowleri because the amoeba is naturally occurring and there is no established relationship between detection or concentration of Naegleria fowleri and risk of infection.”

As the single-celled organism tends to enter the body through the nose, health officials say.

“We think when people dive or jump into that kind of water, they get an inoculation of water up the nose and then it gains access into the central nervous system and into the brain,” says Dr. Mark Rupp, an Infectious Disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center tells 6 News.

Officials suggest keeping your head above water when swimming in rivers, lakes, and streams; or to plug your nose when swimming or diving — or simply avoid freshwaters in the later weeks of summer as water temperatures rise and water levels decline. The health department also noted that people can not be infected by drinking contaminated water.

“The real tragedy behind this is that the treatments are not great and the mortality is very, very high, almost universal,” Dr. Rupp says of the extremely rare disaease.

According to the CDC, 31 naegleria fowleri infections have been reported in the U.S. between 2012 and 2021, and only 154 cases since 1962.

“Of those cases, 28 people were infected by recreational water, two people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and one person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide,” the CDC website states.

Symptoms — which typically occur within 12 days of an infection — can include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting, but can progress to stiffness in the neck, confusion, and seizures. In the worst cases, there are other neurological symptoms, but the health department noted that deaths from PAM have typically occurred within five days of infection.

Dr. Rupp says although it’s deadly, there is a helpful treatment for the infection.

“The one medication that seems potentially to have some beneficial effect is called miltefosine, and we actually have that pre-positioned here at the Nebraska Medical Center in case anyone in our region has a defined infection,” he says. “We have this in stock and we’re obviously serving as a regional resource in case we have a case like this get defined when we could potentially do something about it.”

KCRG staff contributed to this report.

Reporter Marlo Lundak contributed to the article.

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