U.S. Deaths Linked to Infected Water
Four deaths in 2011 have been linked to water contaminated by an amoeba that infects the brain. Two were infected from using infected tap water for nasal irrigation, and two were infected by diving or jumping into rivers or lakes infected by the same bacteria.
The link between two deaths and the use of tap water for nasal irrigation was made by the Raoult Ratard, M.D. an Epidemiologist for the State of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, and an associate professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health.
Both patients died in 2011 of meningoencephalitis, an infection of the brain by the amoeba Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba is found in streams, rivers and lakes, and sometimes in municipal water supplies. Also in 2011, two U.S. children who were diving or jumping into public waterways died from meningoencephalitis infections of Naegleria fowleri.
Naegleria fowleri has been known to – though rarely – penetrate the blood-brain barrier and infect brain cells – causing encephalitis.
When the two people – with no history of swimming – died from the same infection, Dr. Ratard eventually connected their deaths to their use of contaminated tap water with a neti pot. The first death, a 20 year-old male, occurred in June, and the second, a 51 year-old woman, in October. After reviewing their use of tap water with nasal irrigation, Dr. Ratard concluded that they had both gotten infected from the nasal cavity. The woman’s tap water and neti pot both tested positive for Naegleria fowleri.
Most health experts agree that distilled, purified or filtered water is best for nasal irrigation. While most tap water in the U.S. is treated for bacteria using chlorine, it is by no means a guarantee of purity.
The risk of infection with Naegleria fowleri for someone swimming in a lake or river is considered to be about one in ten million – very low. Infections and deaths are extremely rare. Even so, health experts like Dr. Ratard advise people to refrain from diving or doing cannonballs into rivers or lakes – to avoid getting the water into the upper nasal cavities.
Another lesson that arises from this is the usefulness of water filtration, and limiting tap water to external use.