Amoeba dangers: The killer you can't see

Numbers show parasites prey on children in summer months

Author: Matt Papaycik, Producer, mpapaycik@wkmg.com
Published On: Jun 24 2012 11:35:16 PM EDT   Updated On: Jun 29 2012 12:32:04 PM EDT
ORLANDO, Fla. -

Lakes in Central Florida can be refreshing and relaxing, especially during the summer.

But if you're planning on jumping in or doing water sports, there's a summertime danger you need to understand: amoebas.

They're too small to see, except under a microscope. But when these parasites strike, they kill. According to the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention, there have been 20 deaths in the last five years.

Amoebas like it hot, when we average temperatures in the 90s, and the water is above 80 degrees.

"It is microscopic, you can't see it with the human eye, and it's a parasite," said Dain Weister with the Orange County Health Department.

The chance of an amoeba actually infecting someone is remote, but the chance that you'll die if an amoeba strikes is nearly 100 percent.

In fact, there's only one known survivor in the United States.

Most victims die just days after the parasite gets into their body, usually by shooting up their nose.

"It's very difficult because a lot of these cases we've seen, as you can imagine with wakeboards, with skiers, people who are doing a recreational activity and they take a spill, they take a dive, and they get the water up through the nose," says Weister.

He adds that amoebas are generally found close to shore and scatter when the bottom gets stirred up.

"It can be anywhere in the lake, but typically it is known to be along the bottom of the lake, lake bottoms where the silt and the sand is," said Weister.

Once the parasite gets into your nose, it quickly attacks your brain. The amoeba causes headaches, nausea, blurry vision, confusion, even hallucinations. All of those symptoms are similar to the flu.

"If you have those symptoms, and you know you've been out on a lake, you've gotten that water up your nose, get to a doctor right away," said Weister.

Amoebic infections in Florida spike in July and August when the water is hot.

"Try not to get that water up the nose by wearing nose clips or nose plugs, or even try to keep your head up out of the water," said Weister.

These parasites seem to prey on kids. According to the CDC, the average age of an amoeba victim is just 12 years old.

Doctors say the parasites kill people, on average, in just ten days.

You can get more information on summer safety from Lifeguard: A Local 6 Summer Safety Special.