Deadly water: The Dangers of Swimming in Warm, Freshwater Lakes, Ponds and Rivers
Family uses tragedy to get word out on water-born amoebas
Aug. 29, 2010, marks the “angelversary” of the death of then 7-year-old Kyle Gracin Lewis. Kyle spent the week being the outdoorsy little boy he was – swimming, fishing, boating and camping in Lake Granbury and the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas. A perfect family weekend right before school started.
The Lewis family clings on to those moments now before their little boy became ill and died at Cook Children’s Medical Center. Kyle died from the Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM), which was caused by the water-born amoeba Naegleria fowleri.
Since Kyle’s death, his parents and their 15-year old daughter Peyton have become passionate advocates to make people aware of brain-eating parasites that are common in fresh, warm water. The family helped to make Cook Children's the first hospital in the nation to house a life-saving investigational drug called miltefosine.
Still, nothing will ever make up for the loss of their little boy. Especially as we mark not only the date of Kyle’s death, but recent reports of young people being infected by Naegleria fowleri and dying after going in Texas and Oklahoma lakes.
“It’s always difficult this time of year, especially when you hear of more cases,” Jeremy Lewis, Kyle's dad, said. “Those reports hurt. It’s like the wounds are open again.”
The Lewis family started the Kyle Lewis Amoeba Awareness Foundation with the goal of informing families of the potential dangers which exist in most freshwater.
“We hope that we can help other families not go through what we did with the death of Kyle,” Julie Lewis, Kyle's mom, said. “We simply didn’t know the dangers. Our hope is we can save other families from going through the heartache that we went through then and continue to do so now.”
For many Texas kids, the summer means time for fun activities such as fishing, swimming and water skiing. Unfortunately those staples of summer could, in rare instances, also lead to serious health complications.
Texas health officials say:
- From 1984-2013 (30 years) there were 28 cases of PAM reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services, just under one case per year.
- Most cases occurred in young males, 9-12 years of age, with a history of recent exposure to freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers during the warm summer months.
Mary Suzanne Whitworth, medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s, says that children who spend time in still water run the greatest risk of the life-threatening parasite, entering their bodies. The dangerous amoebas are usually found in warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, but they could be in any standing body of water, including creeks or even puddles.
“Once a child is infected, everything happens very quickly,” Dr. Whitworth said. “We try our best to save the child’s life, but the parasites rarely respond to medications and are very difficult to treat. The infection tragically results in death almost uniformly.”
Use caution when swimming in fresh warmer water, especially in stagnant water. Naegleria fowleri grows best at higher temperatures from 30 degrees Fahrenheit up to 115 degrees (46 degrees Celsius) and can survive for short periods when the temperature rises even higher.
Do all you can to limit the amount of water going up the nose. Your best option is to keep your head above water, but you can reduce the chance to getting these infections inside the body by wearing nose plugs.
Dr. Whitworth says progress is being made in treating children who are infected by these dangerous parasites. But until a cure has been found, the most important thing is to be extremely careful if you are in fresh, warm water.