August 26, 2010
Health Department confirms cause of death in seven-year-old child
Cause was severe but extremely rare brain infection; public not at risk
The Minnesota Department of Health today confirmed the cause of death of a seven-year-old child as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a very rare form of meningitis caused by an amoeba associated with warm freshwater.
The organism, identified with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is known as Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in warm freshwater and soil. It causes a very rare but severe brain infection and is nearly always fatal. The organism infects people by entering the body through the nose. Generally, this occurs when people use warm freshwater for activities such as swimming or diving.
Infections are very rare, even though Naegleria is commonly found in freshwater all over the world. While it can occur anywhere, infection with Naegleria usually occurs in warm southern states in the U.S. It has caused infections in 15 southern tier states. In the 10 years ending in 2007, 33 infections were reported in the U.S.
By comparison, deaths due to drowning occur 1,200 times more often with over 36,000 drownings occurring in a similar 10 year period.
Health officials acknowledged that the child had gone swimming at several different locations over the several weeks preceding her infection.
“Since this organism is known to be associated with warmer water, it is understandable that this infection occurred in a year that has been unseasonably warm for freshwater in the state,” said Dr. Richard Danila, an epidemiologist with MDH.
Danila said the occurrence of the case does not signal any increased risk to the public from any particular body of freshwater. The organism could occur anywhere, but is more likely to be found in shallower, warmer, stagnant bodies of water.
“Swimming is a very healthy, summertime activity and we do not want to discourage people from swimming,” he said.
Information on healthy swimming and recreational water use can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/.
Information on Naegleria is available on the MDH website at http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/naegleria/index.html.
Assistant State Epidemiologist