- A child has died in Nebraska days after swimming in the Elkhorn River.
- Health officials suspect that the child died of a brain-eating amoeba infection.
- If confirmed, it would be the first death due to Naegleria fowleri in Nebraska.
Health officials in Nebraska are investigating a suspected brain-eating amoeba infection that may have killed a local child, according to a news release shared by the state health department Wednesday.
The child, whose age was not disclosed by health officials, died this week after swimming in the Elkhorn River on Sunday, the Douglas County Health Department said in a separate news release.
Naegleria fowleri, also known as the brain-eating amoeba, is commonly found in warm freshwater lakes and rivers. It does not pose a threat to swimmers unless it enters the nose, which gives the tiny organism access to the brain.
The amoeba is known to destroy healthy brain tissue and causes an infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis. PAM is nearly always fatal — of the 154 cases reported in the US from 1962 to 2021, only four people survived, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early symptoms of PAM include severe headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting. The infection can progress quickly to cause stiffness in the neck, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, and coma. Many sufferers die within 5 days of symptom onset, according to the CDC.
The CDC is investigating the case to confirm whether the child was infected with Naegleria fowleri before they died. If confirmed, this would be the first death attributed to a brain-eating amoeba infection in Nebraska.
The amoeba is becoming a bigger threat as waters warm
Brain-eating amoeba infections are still considered rare in the US, but they've been identified over a wider geographic area in recent years.
About a month before the suspected case occurred in Nebraska, health officials in neighboring Iowa confirmed the state's first Naegleria fowleri exposure that led to infection. The amoeba was detected in the Lake of Three Fires, where a Missouri resident had gone swimming prior to becoming fatally ill with PAM.
Historically, most brain-eating amoeba infections in the US have occurred in southern states, with Texas and Florida reporting almost half of all infections. However, warming waters have expanded the area where the amoeba can survive, Insider previously reported.
The CDC does not recommend regular testing of rivers and lakes where Naegleria fowleri might live, since there's no evidence that detecting the amoeba predicts the likelihood of infection. Instead, swimmers are encouraged to take precautions like plugging their noses or not submerging their heads while swimming in warm freshwater.