Members of the CWA of NSW were deeply saddened to hear of the death of three Queensland children in recent years, who have died from the amoeba Naegleria Fowleri, a microorganism typically found in warm freshwater.
The tragedies were discussed at our most recent state conference, resulting in a policy mandate to encourage the spreading of awareness of the dangers of this microorganism, especially since many parts of NSW have had some very welcome rain recently.
The microorganism (N.fowleri) is deadly when water containing the amoeba is inhaled up the nose - it can pass through the sinus membranes and spread through to the brain. The very thin bone that protects the brain is underdeveloped in children, and hence children are thought to be particularly at risk.
It thrives in a water body that seasonally exceeds 30 degrees or continually exceeds 25 degrees. It has been discovered in lakes, rivers, naturally hot water such as hot springs, and has even been found in poorly maintained and under-chlorinated swimming pools.
During these long hot summer days, of course we want children to cool down and enjoy water play, whether it be with the hose, the sprinkler, or even a wading pool for young children, where we are lucky enough to have water available.
However, we urge families to be aware of this microorganism, and ensure water does not go up the nose. If jumping into or putting the head under warm, un-chlorinated water, we can teach children to hold their nose, or avoid it altogether.
If playing with the hose on the lawn, or under the sprinkler, always flush the stagnant water through the hose first and teach children to not squirt water up the nose or around the face.
N.fowleri has been found in above-ground dams containing bore water, where the water is then piped over distances in above-ground pipes to the house.
People can seek specialist advice as to any water treatment options, such as chlorination or UV treatment.
Whilst the microorganism is commonly found in our environment, cases of infection are rare.
However, once N.fowleri reaches the brain, it is most likely fatal. Infections do not occur from drinking, cooking with, or washing clothes in contaminated water, and the microorganism is not found in sea water.
There have been 25 documented cases occurring in Australia since the identification of the amoeba in 1960s in South Australia.
With the changing weather, warm summer days, and now some recent rain about, we think it timely to raise awareness of this deadly amoeba.
There are good fact sheets found online from both Australian state health departments, and the US where there have been a total of 33 reported cases.
It is believed that the number of cases may be under-reported.
- Stephanie Stanhope is the CWA of NSW president.