Summer vacation is upon us, and as the schools empty the rivers, ponds, and lakes fill with children looking for fun and to escape the heat. Every year, though, that summer fun can turn deadly in a way most of us never suspect. As the summer heat builds and spring rains give way to more dry conditions, Naegleria fowleri, an ameba found worldwide in warm, stagnant bodies of fresh water, begins to multiply. This organism can cause primary amebic meningitis , and is responsible for serious illness and death in the United States each summer. Infections are almost always fatal, and are most common in children and young adults.

From 1972 to 1991, 32 Naegleria cases were reported in Texas, two-thirds of which occurred in July or August. The organism is usually introduced through the nose when swimmers jump or splash into un-chlorinated or poorly chlorinated bodies of water, usually ponds, stock tanks, lakes, or rivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that initial signs and symptoms of infection include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, and stiff neck—symptoms that are common to many mild illnesses. Rapid destruction of brain tissue leads quickly to mental status changes, loss of bodily control, and seizures. Once established, there is no known effective treatment. The disease progresses rapidly and infection usually results in death within 3 to 7 days.

Although rare, the danger is close to home. Cases have been reported in swimmers in the Brazos River near Glen Rose, Lake Arrowhead near Wichita Falls, and other popular water recreation sites. As with most such threats, the best tools for defense are information, prevention, and early recognition. The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends simple measures such as use of nose plugs or holding one’s nose when jumping or splashing into un-chlorinated water, and others suggest avoiding the deep, still warm water where the ameba is most prevalent. Mild flu-like symptoms occurring after recent exposure to swimming in warm, stagnant water should not be ignored but evaluated by your physician.

For more information on this or other children’s or summer health issues, call Dr. Kelly Miller with Miller Pediatrics, P.A. at (254)918-2484.