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CDC Data: 'Brain-Eating Amoeba' Disease Found In Yuma County Rare, But Often Fatal

Naegleria fowleri life cycle chart
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The three stages in Naegleria fowleri's life cycle.

A San Francisco woman died from primary amebic meningoencephalitis on Aug. 17, days after swimming in Martinez Lake, located in Yuma County on the Colorado River.

The disease, also called amebic encephalitis, is caused by Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled organism found in water and soil. The amoeba enters the body through the nose. Once the organism travels to the brain of the victim, it can swell and destroy the tissue. Symptoms include headaches, fever, nausea and eventually death.

Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 10 cases of amebic encephalitis occur in the United States each year. But the disease is often fatal — only three people have survived of the 133 reported cases since 1962.

The CDC made the following comparison of the risk of disease versus drowning:

“The risk of Naegleria fowleri infection is very low. There have been 35 reported infections in the U.S. in the 10 years from 2005 to 2014, despite millions of recreational water exposures each year. By comparison, in the ten years from 2001 to 2010, there were more than 34,000 drowning deaths in the U.S.”

The disease occurs most often in late summer and early fall, and primarily in warmer areas of the country. Most people swam in lakes, ponds and reservoirs prior to developing amebic encephalitis.

Other fatal cases of the disease occurred during August 2015 in Texas and Oklahoma.

Although amebic encephalitis is relatively rare, the CDC advises preventative measures against the disease, such as avoiding warm or stagnant water when swimming and wearing a nose clip or holding your nose while submerged.

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Amanda Solliday is the Arizona Science Desk reporter for KAWC.