Fears over 'brain-eating amoeba' grow, doctors say infections are very rare

Posted at 2:49 PM, Sep 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-16 18:28:07-04

After a young woman died from a rare infection likely contracted in Cecil County waters, a local expert is breaking down how it works, what to look for and when to seek treatment.

Naegleria fowleri is a bacteria that many now know as "the brain eating amoeba." It's commonly found in warm freshwater, but doctors say it's extremely rare.

Doctors say you're more likely to die in a car accident on your way to work than by this microorganism. Only 37 people have died from this bacteria in the U.S. since the 1930s. 

One of those people was Kerry Stoutenburgh, 19, who visited two rivers in Cecil County back in August when she was visiting family. She was infected and died from the amoeba.

Her death sparked concern over the amoeba and any potential risks to those swimming in the area.

Dr. Fasheem Younus of Upper Chesapeake Medical Center explained the amoeba enters the body through the nose in brackish water, then makes its way to the brain.

"It causes a severe inflammation in the lining of the brain and the brain tissue itself and many a times, by the time it is recognized the damage is so advanced the patients succumb to it," Younus said.

While rare, the mortality rate is very high, 80-90 percent. If swimming in warm fresh water, there's a few symptoms to look out for:

  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Then a few days later, the symptoms get worse and include:

  • Seizures
  • Neck Stiffness
  • Altered Mental Status
  • Hallucinations

Death usually happens within two weeks.

Doctors suggest wearing nose plugs while swimming in warm fresh water, and looking out for pets who could be susceptible as well.

"After every little thing you start getting a spinal tap, which is necessary to diagnose this infection, then you'll be doing thousands of spinal taps on people so I think that's where it gets a little tricky," Dr. Younus said.

Doctors still want to quell fears of the uncommon infection, and say people should go on living their lives.

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