Photo by Max Seigle, THV 11
Following news this week that a 12-year-old Benton girl is being treated for parasitic meningitis, which she reportedly contracted after swimming at Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, many questions have been raised. Here are answers to some of the common ones asked.
What is parasitic meningitis?
The formal name for parasitic meningitis is primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a devastating and usually fatal infection of the brain. It is caused by Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
How do people get parasitic meningitis?
The ameba is commonly found in warm freshwater (e.g. lakes, rivers, and hot springs) and soil. Naegleria fowleri usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. Once the ameba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes PAM. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Is there a way to prevent parasitic meningitis?
The best way to prevent the infection is to use a nose plug while swimming in fresh water. (Source: Lower Colorado River Authority)
What is the likelihood of someone contracting the infection?
Statistics show there is a 1 in 33 million chance of getting the infection, which is less likely than the odds of being struck by lightning. While the infection is very rare, the amebic organism is very common. Dr. Dirk Haselow, Arkansas' Epidemiologist, said it is found in "pretty much every body of water in the southeastern United States," in particularly in lakes, rivers, streams, and springs.
How many cases of PAM have there been in Arkansas?
There have been two recorded cases: The most recent case from Willow Springs, which was discovered this week (July 2013) and a previous case from 2010, which also originated from Willow Springs.
If the infection is so rare, why have there been two cases in Arkansas and at Willow Springs?
Dr. Haselow said conditions at Willow Springs may increase the likelihood of infection. Those variables include the water being more shallow than other bodies of fresh water and activities taking place, such as slides and jumps, that force water up the person's nose.
Was Willow Springs forced to shut down?
The owners chose to voluntarily shut down the area after receiving information that their water contained the fatal parasite.
Would anything kill this organism?
Not really. Dr. Haselow said there is no way to get rid of it, however chlorine does help control it.
Are other bodies of water in Arkansas at risk for causing this infection?
Dr. Haselow said the state does not have reason to believe other bodies of water are at an increased risk of providing infection. He encouraged people to focus more on general water safety than preventing the infection, given that more people would be affected by drowning than by parasitic meningitis.
What are the symptoms of this infection?
They are similar to other forms of meningitis. Symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, and sensitivity to light.
What if I swam at Willow Springs recently? Should I seek medical attention?
Haselow couldn't say if people who swam in the area are at risk, however symptoms come about very quickly. If you have the symptoms, it may be safe to visit the doctor.