A child died Sept. 11 from a rare infection caused by a waterborne amoeba they likely ingested at the Don Misenhimer Park splash pad in Arlington, according to a press release Monday from Tarrant County Public Health. The department did not provide further details about the child to protect their identity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the amoeba’s presence at the splash pad Friday.
The City of Arlington had closed the splash pad — along with all other public splash pads — in early September after learning about the child’s illness.
The splash pad’s inspection records were missing how much chlorine, a disinfectant, the water contained on two of the three days the child visited, according to the release. The day after the child’s visit, however, the records indicated the chlorine level had fallen below what’s acceptable.
“This is a very rare infection,” Russ Jones, chief epidemiologist at Tarrant County Public Health, told the Fort Worth Report. Only about 150 cases from the infection have been recorded in the U.S. in several decades, he said, “and there’s a lot of kids who are exposed to water.”
Here’s what we know about the infection and how families can prevent exposure to the amoeba that causes it.
What is Naegleria fowleri?
Naegleria fowleri is a parasite. Specifically, it’s a species of amoeba, or single-celled organism, that lives in warm freshwater and can infect people.
The death rate for the infection is high — about 97%. However, the infection is incredibly rare. Fewer than 150 people were known to be infected in the U.S. between 1962 and 2019, according to the CDC.
For comparison’s sake, nearly 700,000 people died from heart disease in 2020 alone. At the current death rate for Naegleria infection, about 2.5 people per year, it would take more than 275,000 years for the same number of people to die from the Naegleria infection as the number of people who died from heart disease in 2020.
People are more likely to be killed by lightning than this amoeba.
How do people encounter Naegleria fowleri?
When people swim or dive in warm, freshwater bodies like rivers, lakes or hot springs, the amoeba can travel up their nose and into their brain. The amoeba then causes severe brain damage and, typically, death.
People can also encounter the amoeba in poorly maintained swimming pools or through contaminated tap water, according to the CDC.
Most people with the infection die within a week after showing symptoms: fever, severe headache, nausea, nasal congestion and, later, stiff neck, seizures and hallucinations, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Animals can be infected, too, but reports are rare. A South American tapir has died from the infection, as well as several cattle, according to a 2005 article from the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.
What if a person visited the splash pad before it closed Sept. 5?
If people were infected from the same splash pad, they typically would’ve experienced symptoms within nine days of infection, Jones said. However, no other cases have been reported to the county health department.
“We’re three weeks out from the time the splash pad was closed,” Jones said. “At this point, there will be no other cases from the splash pad.”
Is the City of Arlington’s water supply affected?
No. A device at the Don Misenhimer Park splash pad keeps the splash pad’s water from the city’s water distribution system, according to the release. The device passed its annual inspection in April and again Sept. 7.
“We’re not worried about the public water system,” Jones said.
How can people reduce their risk of infection?
The goal is to “prevent intrusion,” he said. People can diminish their risk of ingesting the amoeba in natural bodies of water and in man-made spaces like water parks with a few strategies.
Because the amoeba thrives in warm or hot freshwater, people are more likely to be infected during the summer months, according to the CDC.
When swimming in warm freshwater, like a pool, lake or river, they can reduce their risk by keeping their head above water or, when diving or jumping, pinching their nose shut.
In other public spaces like splash pads or water parks, Jones recommends people ask management how they’re keeping their water safe.
People with pools or fountains at home should keep water clean from debris and maintain their filters and chlorine levels, he said. Also, if children want to play with water from a hose, Jones recommends letting the water run from the hose for a while “to clear it” before they do.
Very rarely, a person could get infected after using tap water to rinse their sinuses, according to the Mayo Clinic. A safe alternative is to use distilled or boiled water instead.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.