Brain-eating amoeba case closes water park in Little Rock, Arkansas

A microscopic parasite has shut down a water park in Little Rock, Ark., where a young swimmer is thought to have contracted a deadly brain infection from a sandy-bottom lake.

The swimmer, whose age and gender have not been released, has been diagnosed with primary amoebic meningoencephalitis -- a rare form of meningitis caused by the amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

“Though the odds of contracting Naegleria are extremely low, they are just not good enough to allow our friends or family to swim,” said David and Lou Ann Ratliff, owners of Willow Springs Water Park -- the “most likely source of infection,” according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

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Naegleria thrives in warm, standing water. And while it’s usually harmless, it can cause fatal brain swelling if inhaled through the nose.

“If concerned about Naegleria, avoid swimming, diving or other activities that push water up the nose, especially in natural waters when temperatures are high and water levels are low,” the Arkansas Department of Health said in a statement.

While exceedingly rare, Naegleria fowleri infections are almost always fatal. Only one person out of 128 infected in the United States between 1962 and 2012 has survived, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days,” the agency’s website reads.

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Early symptoms include a severe frontal headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC. But those can swiftly give way to a stiff neck, seizures, confusion and hallucinations as the amoeba makes its way up through the nasal cavity into the brain.

“People should seek medical care immediately whenever they develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck, and vomiting, particularly if they have been in warm freshwater recently,” according to the CDC.
Naegleria was eyed in the death of a Minnesota child last summer, when the state experienced a heat wave. And in the summer of 2011, the amoeba killed four people in Virginia, Florida, Kansas and Louisiana, all of whom had been swimming in freshwater lakes.

The owners of Willow Springs Water Park said they will take time to “determine the feasibility of installing a solid bottom to the lake.”

“We will not ever reopen as a sand bottom lake,” they said in a statement.

The CDC offers the following tips for summer swimmers:

-- Hold your nose shut or keep your head above water;

-- Avoid swimming in warm, fresh water during periods of high water temperature and low water levels;

-- Avoid stirring up sediment in shallow freshwater areas.

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