Douglas County experts urge caution in freshwaters after possible amoeba infection death

Child’s death possibly caused by brain-eating amoeba infection from Elkhorn River
There are new developments in what is likely Nebraska's first ever death from a brain-eating amoeba.
Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 10:19 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2022 at 5:47 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse continued to urge caution in freshwaters as health officials await CDC confirmation of a child’s death they suspect was caused by a brain-eating amoeba from the Elkhorn River.

“Now we know that it is here,” she said during the news conference Thursday morning.

Dr. Kari Neemann, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital, said the child had symptoms about five days after exposure and went to the hospital within 48 hours of the presentation of those symptoms.

Dr. Huse reiterated on Thursday that the CDC was working to confirm that the death was caused by primary amebic meningoencephalitis after the child went swimming in the river on Aug. 8, not on Sunday as originally reported by the health department.

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

The National Water Information System takes measurements from Waterloo, which is about five miles from where the amoeba exposure occurred, and measured the water temperature at that time to be 86-92 degrees, according to Justin Frederick, who supervises the infectious disease crew at DCHD.

Dr. Huse said during the update that recent cases aren’t necessarily related, noting that the case in Iowa was in water not connected to rivers here. But regions are becoming warmer, and the organism really loves heat and thrives in drought conditions — particularly warmer, stagnant, shallow waters, she said.

Dr. Huse said DCHD wouldn’t be releasing any details about the child because of privacy concerns. She did say the child had been taken to a hospital after typical swimming activities. She also said it was possible that others swimming in the same area at the time may have come in contact with the amoeba but not been infected.

Dr. Neemann said the amoeba is often present in freshwaters.

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

One father camping with two young boys off the Elkhorn River said because of the news, he’ll err on the side of caution. But he won’t keep his kids inside forever.

“I don’t want to limit their opportunities for a one-in-ten-million risk,” said Sam Senter.

Technically, the risk is “probably about 2.6 cases for every million exposure opportunities. So, every time someone has one of those freshwaters into the nose,” said Dr. Neemann.

Typical water surface activities should be safe, Dr. Huse said. Sitting in an intertube floating down the river presents far less risk than diving or swimming underwater, and you can’t get the infection by ingesting water, she said.

Dr. Huse said that “it does take more than a casual exposure.” She recommended covering the nose and mouth if you’re going to submerge in freshwaters.

The health department doesn’t have plans to shut down any access points along the Elkhorn River but is advising awareness and caution, Dr. Huse said.

The Metropolitan Utilities District issued a statement Thursday afternoon reassuring the public that the amoeba posed no threat to area drinking water treated by the utility.

“There is no risk when drinking water treated by the district. The water supply continues to be safe for drinking and other domestic uses and meets all federal and state standards.

The District operates three water treatment facilities which provide multiple barriers of protection. The treatment processes are effective in removing and killing the amoeba. The water goes through a multi-step process including clarification, disinfection and filtration. In addition, the District maintains a level of disinfectant residual to protect water quality throughout its distribution system.”

Statement from the Metropolitan Utilities District

Watch Thursday’s news conference

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