Boy dies from brain-eating amoeba found at Texas splash pad


ARLINGTON, Texas (NewsNation Now) — A child has died after being infected with a rare brain-eating amoeba that was found at a Texas splash pad he visited.

Officials in Arlington, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, said Monday that the city and Tarrant County Public Health were notified on Sept. 5 that a child was hospitalized with primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a rare and often fatal infection. The boy died at the hospital on Sept. 11.

Health officials closed all of the city’s public splash pads. In addition, a city review discovered lapses in water quality testing at several parks.

The boy had visited the Don Misenhimer Park splash pad several times in recent weeks and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence of the amoeba N. fowleri in water samples from the park on Friday.

Infection of N. fowleri usually occurs after the organism enters the nasal cavity and crosses the epithelial lining into the brain, where it begins destroying the tissue of the frontal lobe, explains Dr. Dennis Kyle, a professor of infectious diseases and cellular biology at the University of Georgia and the scholar chair of antiparasitic drug discovery with the Georgia Research Alliance.

This brain infection, known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), can lead to fever, headaches, stiff neck, seizures and hallucinations. These symptoms usually start within five to nine days of exposure. Death usually occurs within another five days, according to the CDC.

The CDC currently classifies N. fowleri infections as rare, with only 34 reported cases in the U.S. between 2010 and 2019. Of those, the vast majority (30) were infected during recreational water activities, while others were infected using contaminated tap water for nasal irrigation or, in one case, on a “backyard slip-n-slide.”

Despite the relatively low case numbers, Kyle says researchers — and especially the families of those who died of a brain-eating amoeba infection — generally dislike the term “rare.”

“This is something that is in every warm water lake around the South, so it’s there,” says Kyle, who adds that science doesn’t quite know why more people aren’t getting infected. He further notes that any body of warm freshwater can harbor the amoebae, citing two cases of N. fowleri in Minnesota in 2010 and 2012. 

In the history of studying this specific amoeba, there are only two known cases linked back to splash pads. The other was about one year ago — also in Texas.

Dr. Mia Mattioli, an environmental engineer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says proper upkeep is key to avoiding these tragedies.

“These types of amoeba shouldn’t grow in a properly maintained and operated splash pad,” said Mattioli. “Those should be maintained very similarly to a pool. So this type of infection happening again in Texas where the water in these types of venues can get very warm need to be well maintained.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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