Amoeba victim Haille LaMeyer swimming in 2006
MINNEAPOLIS - As water temperatures rise in Minnesota lakes, the state health department is urging swimmers to take special precautions against a rare, but deadly infection caused by amoeba.
The single-celled organism, known as Naegleria fowleri, lives in lake sediment and thrives in warmer water. The microscopic amoeba can travel up a swimmer's nose, migrate to the brain and destroy it in a matter of days.
The best defense is to avoid putting your face in overly warm lake water, unless you're holding your nose or wearing nose plugs to keep the water. Stirring up lake sediment can also release more of the organisms, which are more concentrated in shallow water.
The infection typically leads to inflammation of the brain, as the body's immune system fights furiously against the tiny invaders, which continue to multiply inside the victim's head. The condition, known as Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM, is very rare but almost always fatal.
Most of the deaths that have been blamed on the amoeba have occurred in the southern United States, but it has claimed the lives to two children in Minnesota in recent years.
One of them was Hailee LaMeyer, an 11-year-old girl who lived in Linwood Township in Anoka County at the time of her death in August of 2008. She developed flu-like symptoms two days after swimming at Fawn Lake.
Her parents, Heidi and Chad LaMeyer, had no idea such a threat existed. And most Minnesota medical providers at the time weren't looking for that explanation either, because Minnesota is so far to the north.
"That summer she was trying to learn how to swim without plugging her nose, and we encouraged her," Heidi LaMeyer recalled.
After several trips to urgent care and the emergency room at Children's Hospital in Saint Paul over the next two days, the girl's fever shot up to 105 degrees and she begin having seizures.
"She was confused, mumbling her speech, and she couldn't walk," Heidi remembered. "We rushed her back in to the hospital, and at that point they knew it was either meningitis or encephalitis."
Hailee died as a result of extreme swelling of her brain, but the cause defied explanation at the time. The doctors were puzzled about what had ravaged the girl's brain.
"Never did they ask if she'd been swimming. They didn't even ask the question," Heidi recalled. "But we didn't think to tell them either. Her brother Justin was swimming with the same day, and he never got sick."
Two years later, in August of 2010, the LaMeyers saw the story of Annie Bahneman, a seven-year-old Stillwater girl who died after swimming.
The Minnesota Department of Health confirmed Annie had died of an amoebic infection caused by Naegleria, the first documented case in Minnesota, and the only such case in the northern tier of states.
The LaMeyers, recognizing that Annie suffered the same symptoms as their daughter, called the health department. They reached Aaron DeVries, who tracks unexplained deaths and illnesses in Minnesota.
"I started to say, 'I'm calling about my daughter's case'," Heidi said. "And he just interrupted me and said, 'Are you Hailee's mom? We have her file out, we're looking at it'."
DeVries told KARE he could not definitively confirm Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis without any brain tissues from the girl, but that all of her symptoms -- as reported by medical providers -- were consistent with PAM. He said it would be difficult to find another explanation that fit her case as well.
Since Hailee's death the LaMeyers have worked to raise awareness of the dangers of amoeba in warm bodies of water, and promote preventative steps such as nose plugs for children.
"I just wish they had a sign at beaches that said 'Water temperatures are exceedingly high. Use a nose plug or keep your face out of the water'," Heidi remarked, comparing it to using a life jacket to avoid drowning.
Healthy Swimming Advisory
She's not the only one talking about naeglaria. The torrid summer of 2012 has raised water temperatures to the point the Minnesota Department of Health singled out Naegleria fowleri in a recent advisory.
The families of PAM victims have banded together to raise awareness of the amoeba infection, under the heading of the Kyle Lewis Amoeba Awareness Foundation. It is named for Kyle Lewis, a Texas boy who died at age 7 in 2010 just days after swimming in a local lake.
An eight-year-old South Carolina boy, Blake Driggers, is the latest documented case of the water borne amoeba striking. The boy died Tuesday, just three days after swimming in Lake Marion near Sumter, South Carolina.
"We've heard people say the odds of catching are lower than being struck by lighting or being bitten by a shark, but those things aren't always fatal. This thing virtually always is," Chad LaMeyer, Hailee's father, told KARE.
"All we want here is for people to be aware that this is in the water, and you're at potential risk when you are in fresh water."
The MDH is not asking people to avoid lake or river water, because swimming in lakes generally a very healthy summer activity. The department does advise the following simple precautions, especially as water temperatures reach 85 degrees:
- Avoid water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater, hot springs, and thermally-polluted water such as water around power plants.
- Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
- Hold the nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, or hot springs.
- Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.
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