Federal officials said an adult in Florida died last month from contracting a rare brain-eating amoeba after rinsing their sinuses with unboiled tap water, marking the case as the first death of its kind in the United States this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told local media that the patient died on February 20 from an extremely rare disease caused by Naegleria fowleri, which infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose.
“The adult patient reportedly performed nasal rinsing daily with unboiled tap water, which is thought to be the source of the infection,” a spokesperson from the CDC said.
CDC officials did not disclose the identity of the deceased.
In a February 23 news release, Florida Department of Health officials confirmed that Charlotte County had recently documented one case of someone infected with Naegleria fowleri “possibly as a result of sinus rinse practices utilizing tap water.”
“DOH-Charlotte, as part of a multi-agency response, is continuing to investigate how this infection occurred and is working with the local public utilities to identify any potential links and make any necessary corrective actions,” Meranda Pitt, a spokesperson for the department, said in the statement.
Pitt emphasized residents cannot get infected with the amoeba by drinking tap water.
Eric Milbrandt, director of the marine laboratory at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, told local media the amoeba could only affect people through the nose, not by ingesting it.
“A proper, municipal treatment plant would have filtration, chlorination, and testing,” Milbrandt said. “So your drinking water should be fine.”
Joe Pepe, health officer for Charlotte County, told local media the patient was a male who lived in two separate houses in the area but would not disclose any further specifics about the case.
“What we’re working on right now is a good investigation so that we can identify a point source, but we saw an opportunity to lean forward and being responsible and just kind of helping educate the community on this piece of it at the very least,” Pepe said.
According to the CDC, the amoeba typically thrives in warm freshwater like lakes, rivers, and hot springs around the world.
If water containing the amoeba goes up the nose, the amoeba can enter the brain and cause a devastating infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, officials said.
“In very rare instances, Naegleria fowleri infections might also occur when contaminated water from other sources (such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or contaminated tap water) enters the nose,” the spokesperson added. “People who irrigate, flush, or rinse their sinuses should use distilled water or tap water that has been boiled and cooled.”
Over the past decade, CDC officials have reported 29 cases in the U.S., with up to 5 cases reported annually, most occurring in southern-tier states during the summer.
The latest case, however, marks the first-ever reported in winter months in the United States.