Aaron Evans died Sept. 17 of Naegleria fowleri, an organism doctors said he probably picked up a week before while swimming in the balmy shallows of Lake Havasu.
According to the Centers For Disease Control, Naegleria infected 23 people from 1995 to 2004. This year health officials said they've noticed a spike in cases, with six Naegleria-related cases so far -- all of them fatal.
"This is definitely something we need to track," said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational water-born illnesses for the CDC.
"This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better," Beach said. "In future decades, as temperatures rise, we'd expect to see more cases."
Organism Lives In Lake Bottoms
Though infections tend to be found in southern states, Naegleria has been found almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even some swimming pools. Still, the CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since its discovery in Australia in the 1960s.
The amoeba typically live in lake bottoms, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment. Beach said people become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom. If someone allows water to shoot up the nose -- say, by doing a cannonball off a cliff -- the amoeba can latch onto the person's olfactory nerve.
The amoeba destroys tissue as it makes its way up to the brain.
People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers, Beach said. In the later stages, they'll show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes.
Once infected, most people have little chance of survival.
Some drugs have been effective stopping the amoeba in lab experiments, but people who have been attacked rarely survive, Beach said.
"Usually, from initial exposure it's fatal within two weeks,"
Researchers still have much to learn about Naegleria, Beach said. For example, it seems that children are more likely to get infected.
Texas, Florida Report Cases
In addition to the Arizona case, health officials reported two cases in Texas and three more in central Florida this year. In response, central Florida authorities started an amoeba telephone hot line advising people to avoid warm, standing water, or any areas with obvious algae blooms.
Texas health officials also have issued news releases about the dangers of amoeba attacks and to be cautious around water.
Beach warned that people shouldn't panic about the dangers of brain-eating amoeba. Infections are extremely rare when compared with the number of times a year people come into contact with water.
The easiest way to prevent infection, Beach said, is to simply plug your nose when swimming or diving in fresh water.
"You'd have to have water going way up in your nose to begin with" to be infected, he said.
Just like amoebas in water, and the smallest of bacteria and viruses, these little buggers are often big trouble. Too often people brush-off mold in their homes and consider mold a non issue. I can tell you first hand how mold can make you sick for a long time. Don't underestimate the impact of mold or any pathogen. Treating your home for mold is much cheaper than paying medical bills.