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Health officials: Nearby amoeba infection should not result in alarm

SEBRING - It's a microscopic organism that can pose more of a deadly threat for humans than alligators, sharks, lions and tigers. Health officials say the Naegleria fowleri, known commonly as the brain-eating amoeba, travels from the nose to the brain where it causes an infection that kills brain tissue. And out of about 120 cases during the last 50 years, only two people have survived, federal statistics show. Although it occurs rarely, two cases have made national headlines during the past two weeks, with one being in neighboring Glades County. Brenda Barnes, planning consultant and public information officer for the Florida Health Department in Glades and Hendry counties, said the Health Department is unaware of any previous cases in Glades County.
In Highlands County, the Health Department also is unaware of any cases, said Thomas Moran, public information officer. In view of the case in Glades County, Moran said, the department wants people to be aware of the situation, but not unduly alarmed. The Centers for Disease Control said on its web site that from 2003 to 2012, United States had 31 cases of infection by the amoeba, compared with 39,000 drownings. "The amoeba is commonly found in warm freshwater, such as lakes, rivers, ponds and canals," Barnes said in a press release. Most infections occur during July, August and September, in shallow water with high temperatures, she said. There's no danger from salt water or from the water entering the mouth, she said, adding that apparently digestive liquids kill the amoeba. The CDC says that the amoeba can be found in soils and can present a threat in swimming pools that aren't sufficiently chlorinated. In regards to the Glades County case, Burns said, it remains unknown how the victim was infected. Burns said legally she could not release information about the victim. However, according to stories from the Associated Press and the Fort Myers News-Press, the victim was a 12-year-old boy who had been knee boarding in a ditch with some friends near his house in LaBelle. The boy was being treated in the intensive care unit at Miami Children's Hospital. The last case reported in Florida was in 2011 when a Brevard County teenager died from the infection. The last case in Southwest Florida, according to the Fort Myers News-Press, was when a Bonita Springs teenager died from the infection in 1995. A person infected with the amoeba typically experiences symptoms of headache, fever, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations, the CDC said. The only sure way to avoid the infection is to not get in fresh water, particularly during the warm months, the CDC said. Nose clips and plugs may prevent it, but there's no proof of that, the CDC said. The CDC also advises not to stir up sediments in the water. For those who drain their sinuses with water, the CDC recommends using distilled or boiled water. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834