A few days ago, a brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria fowleri amoeba ) claimed the life of a young Ohio woman after she went whitewater rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The threat is not the Whitewater Center—but any body of fresh water during a time of excess heat.
In 2007, I wrote the following article after a teen died after swimming in my hometown lake—Lake Havasu. I’m not bringing back the article to scare anyone—but to help educate people, especially as our country experiences record heat. Understanding the threat can help keep us safe while we cool off in fresh water lakes this summer.
How we can keep future swimmers safe in Lake Havasu
In the recent news has been the tragic story of a young Lake Havasu teen who died, suffering from a deadly infection of Naegleria fowleri, a free-living amoeba which is commonly found in warm water lakes.
We’ve received a few calls and emails asking us if it is dangerous to swim in Lake Havasu, and wondering if they should find a new fresh water lake. Our answer, if you want to avoid the Naegleria fowleri completely, then avoid ALL warm water lakes, hot springs, ponds, rivers, and a few swimming pools.
Of course, that is a bit drastic, and according to information from the experts, unnecessary. Yes, you CAN swim safely in Lake Havasu and other warm bodies of water, but there are some things you need to know.
First, in spite of the fact the Naegleria fowleri is found world wide, including a majority of the fresh water lakes across the United States, incidents of infections are extremely rare. According to one source, only 23 cases in the United States were documented between 1995 and 2004.
Naegleria Amoeba isn’t Confined to a Particular Local
This amoeba is commonly found in warm, shallow and stagnate water. How warm is warm? 80 degrees and higher is the temperature reported in articles I’ve read.
Yet, simply swimming in warm water is not enough to cause a problem. The amoeba needs to enter the body through the nose, and according to the literature, it needs to enter the nose via a violent water stream, such as diving.
The fact is, no matter where you are, if the water is very warm, is not moving, and shallow, there are going to be some unpleasant things growing. Simple biology.
I don’t like to dunk my head under water, yet if kids are insisting they want to do some violent slashing, I would find cooler waters (which is even possible in Havasu during the warmer months, by simply changing locations), or have them wear a nose clip.
Yet, going under the water is not enough to be infected. Normally, the amoeba needs to be forcefully inserted up the nose, either by diving into the water or some other means.
What about waterskiing if you take an unexpected wipe out? Normally we ski in cooler and deeper waters, where the amoeba is not typically found.
Protect Yourself through Education
Bottom line, I believe it is important to understand possible dangers, learn about the threat, and then take steps in prevention.
I know the father of the young teen who died stated he would never let his children swim in Lake Havasu again. I understand his feelings. If my child drowned in a particular swimming pool or body of water, I would never want to see that body of water ever again.
This particular threat, although extremely rare, is not unique to Lake Havasu. If our goal is to protect our families, we need to take certain precautions when visiting any fresh water lake or other bodies of water. In Havasu the weather is already cooling, which means our water temperatures are also dropping. But next summer, when those water temperatures get above 80 degrees, we should be wearing a nose clip if we want to swim with our heads under water or do any major cannon ball jumping.
What do experts have to say on this issue? According to a recent quote by Dr. Rebecca Suneshine, deputy state epidemiologist of the Arizona Department of Health, “I would swim in Lake Havasu…and I would let my children swim there.” She went on to say the infection was incredibly rare.
Bobbi Holmes, October 5, 2007