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July 18, 2012

Child dies from rare brain infection

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Lab tests have confirmed that a Sumter County boy has died from a rare infection of the brain, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control announced today.

"We are saddened to learn that this child was exposed to the deadly organism Naegleria fowleri," said Catherine Templeton, DHEC director. "While this organism is present in many warm water lakes, rivers and streams in the South, infection in humans is extremely rare. Naegleria fowleri almost always results in death."

Kathleen Antonetti, M.D. and DHEC medical epidemiologist, said that people should seek immediate medical attention after swimming in fresh water if they experience headache, nausea, vomiting, high fever and neck stiffness. Its severity increases very quickly, resulting in death within 1 to 12 days. It cannot be spread from person to person. Although the Naegleria fowleri ameba is widespread in warm waters, illness occurs only under certain circumstances.

"Water must be forced up the nose, through the nasal passages, so that the ameba is able to travel up to the brain and destroy tissue," Dr. Antonetti said. "People should avoid swimming or jumping into bodies of fresh water when the water is warm and the water levels are low. You cannot be infected by merely drinking water containing the ameba. These infections are so rare, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented only 32 cases in this country from 2001 to 2010."

According to the CDC, Naegleria fowleri is found around the world. In the United States, the majority of infections have been caused by exposure in freshwater located in southern states. Typically, the ameba can be found in:

  • Bodies of warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers
  • Geothermal (naturally hot) water, such as hot springs
  • Warm water discharge from industrial plants
  • Geothermal (naturally hot) drinking water sources
  • Soil
  • Swimming pools that are poorly maintained, with either low levels of chlorine or unchlorinated
  • Water heaters with temperatures less than 116°F.

Naegleria fowleri is not found in salt water, like the ocean. For more information about Naegleria fowleri, visit


Note to broadcast editors:
Naegleria fowleri pronounced: Neh-GLARE-ee-ah FOW-luhr-eye

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