FLORIDA, USA — With the summer season around the corner and the temperatures already feeling like it, a lot of families will be heading out to the water.
If visiting freshwater is in your future, there are some precautions you can take to protect against amoebas. A simple step can save a life.
Amebic meningitis is 99 percent fatal and 100 percent preventable. It's a single-cell organism that destroys brain tissue.
Raising awareness and educating others has become the life mission of Dr. Sandra Gompf. Gompf lost her 10-year-old son, Phillip Thomas Gompf 13 years ago to amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). Phillip spent a day out at the lake with his cousins. A week later, he complained to his parents of having a headache. Then his condition escalated to far worse.
"There was nothing we could do to save him," Gompf explained. "We just don't want that to happen to anyone else. If we can raise awareness and keep one loved one from succumbing to this, we would like to do that."
Gompf is an infectious disease doctor at USF. She said even with her education, she wasn't able to protect her son from contracting a fatal amoeba. This is why she continues to talk about it, more than a decade later.
From 1962 to 2019, 148 U.S. infections have been reported to the CDC with no more than eight cases reported each year. Naegleria fowleri lives in soil and warm freshwater around the world. It grows best at higher temperatures up to 115°F and can survive for short periods at higher temperatures. In the U.S., most infections have been linked to swimming in southern states — like Florida and Texas.
Once symptoms appear, the disease quickly progresses and can result in death in as little as five days. Initial symptoms happen 1-9 days after infection. Those symptoms include:
- Stiff neck
According to the CDC, later symptoms include:
- Altered mental status (confusion)
- Lack of attention to people and surroundings
- Loss of balance
The CDC says there have only been 3 reported cases of survival against amoebic meningitis in the U.S.
Gompf said contracting the disease can happen during common water activities.
"Either from something like wakeboarding, diving, tubing, or anything that forces water up the nose," Gompf said.
While the total number of amebic meningitis cases is low, they're not non-existent. An easy preventative step you can take is to wear nose clips and encourage your kids to do the same to prevent water from entering the nasal cavity.
Gompf said her son Phillip loved the outdoors and the water. Her hope is not to discourage people from enjoying the outdoors but to inform them on how to do it safely.