Are You at Risk of Contracting a Waterborne Illness?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Naegleria fowleri amoeba

Brain-infecting amoebas, flesh-eating bacteria, gastrointestinal viruses, oh my! If you read the news closely these days, you might believe that waterborne illnesses are the new modern plague. And, unfortunately, you might be right. Depending on the area you reside in, you may be more susceptible to contract a serious bacterial infection that may threaten your health.

Back in August, a 14-year-old Texas teen died after contracting what has been called the “brain-eating amoeba.” The amoeba’s technical name is Naegleria fowleri, and one of the most frightening aspects of this organism is that it seems to strike people at the prime of their lives. Strong, youthful individuals – the last people you’d expect to die from a waterborne illness – pass away before doctors can help. CNN reports that this particular teen’s decline was rapid. He went from having a headache to losing all brain function within days, then suddenly passing away.

While these startling statistics can lead anyone to avoid any recreational water activities, it’s important to understand the likelihood of contracting such a terrible illness.

So, how likely is one to contract the brain-eating amoeba and what can you do to stay as safe as possible? Let’s take a look.

The Naegleria fowleri amoeba favor warm, still water. This means that people who swim in warm lakes, warm still rivers, and hot springs may be more at risk. The infection enters the body, usually through the nose, when people dive into warm water. Individuals can also get sick by swimming in a poorly-chlorinated pool.

While the illness is very rare – in half a century we’ve seen just over a hundred cases – the fatality rate is high. Of all the reported cases (133 in the past 53 years), only three people survived. The good news is that many, many people swim in warm water every year and don’t get infected. For those who are concerned, wearing nose plugs, avoiding stirring up the sediment at the bottom of lakes and hot springs, and staying away from stagnant, foul-smelling warm water can reduce the likelihood of infection. Additionally, individuals should not swim in areas where swimming has been restricted.

It’s also important to understand that chlorine doesn’t kill all germs on contact. Pool-goers can be at risk of contracting a host of not necessarily deadly, but highly unpleasant and life-disrupting bacteria and viruses. Norovirus, ear infections, and even respiratory diseases are common.

In addition, it’s also important to note that while many of these illnesses are associated with fresh water and pools, beachgoers are not exempt from contracting a serious infection. Beachgoers are at risk of sewage runoff, especially at beaches located near urban areas and in cities where infrastructure is not always equipped to handle the waste produced during large storms. Luckily, many cities post water quality reports online, which swimmers can check to ensure bacteria levels have not become dangerous.

At the end of the day, each individual is responsible for their own safety. Anyone planning on visiting a public pool should take special care to inquire as to how often the pool is cleaned and checked for proper chlorine levels. Swimmers in fresh water should avoid still, dirty, and foul smelling water, as well as exercise caution before diving. Finally, beachgoers should do their research and avoid swimming in closed beaches.

While the chances of encountering deadly bacteria in open or pool water is fortunately rare, there are still times when a life-threatening illness can be contracted due to poorly kept swimming areas.

A serious illness is much more likely to develop when swimming in public, resort, or cruise ship pools. Though there are strict guidelines that must be followed to maintain the safety and integrity of pool water when the pool is accessible by a large number of individuals, many pool operators fail to do so. When this happens, it is in every victim (and their loved ones’) best interest to contact a maritime lawyer to determine if they have a viable claim.