Florida county on alert when man dies from rare brain-eating infection after using tap water to rinse sinuses

A Florida man has died after he contracted a rare but often deadly infection after he used tap water to rinse out his sinuses, spurring public health concerns about the safety of drinking water.

The unnamed Charlotte County man died last month, three days before the county health department issued an alert about the dangerous infection, Naegleria fowleri which is commonly known as the “brain-eating amoeba.”

“The Florida Department of Health (DOH-Charlotte) in Charlotte County has confirmed one Florida case recently infected with Naegleria fowleri, possibly as a result of sinus rinse practices utilizing tap water,” the agency said in a press release dated February 23, 2023.

“Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic single-celled living amoeba. Infection with Naegleria fowleri is RARE and can only happen when water contaminated with amoebae enters the body through the nose. You CANNOT be infected by drinking tap water,” the agenda added, seeking to alleviate public concerns that the organism could be introduced through the normal drinking of water from faucets.

(Video: YouTube/NBC 2 News)

One health expert, Eric Milbrandt, the director of the marine laboratory at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation emphasized that the disease caused by the amoeba is extremely rare in nature and that the only way to be infected is with water through the nose, not by ingesting it.

“It’s found in hot springs, it’s found in warm water, lakes, and it can also be found in hot water tanks and, in some very rare cases, in tap water,” Milbrandt told Fox 4 news.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “In the United States, between zero and five cases were diagnosed annually from 2012 to 2021. During this period, a total of 31 infections were reported in the United States.”

Despite it being rare, the CDC states that “death rate is over 97%. Only four people have survived out of 154 known infected individuals in the United States from 1962 to 2021.”

“Naegleria fowleri causes PAM, a brain infection that destroys brain tissue. In its early stages, symptoms of PAM may be similar to symptoms of bacterial meningitis,” according to the CDC.

“The first symptoms of PAM usually start about 5 days after infection, but they can start within 1 to 12 days. Symptoms may include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting. Later symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, seizures, hallucinations, and coma. After symptoms start, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about 5 days (but death can happen within 1 to 18 days),” the CDC states.

The DOH-Charlotte has advised country residents of several precautions to take in order to minimize the chance of contracting the “brain-eating” infection including boiling tap water for at least one minute and cooling before rinsing sinuses and not allowing water to be sniffed up the nose “when bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming in small hard plastic/blow-up pools.”

The agency also cautions against allowing ” children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers, as they may accidentally squirt water up their nose. Avoid slip-n-slides or other activities where it is difficult to prevent water going up the nose.”

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