Infectious diseases expert discusses freshwater amoeba

July 10, 2015

MANKATO, Minn. — A current Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) investigation into a child’s contraction of a deadly form of meningitis from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba is raising concerns about the health and safety of lakes. However, Jessica Sheehy, physician assistant and infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System, says contracting an infection from this amoeba is extremely rare. 

“The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is a single-celled living organism and is prevalent in freshwater and soil throughout the world,” says Sheehy. “In rare instances, people can be infected and develop primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which is life-threatening. But, again, getting a serious illness is extremely unlikely.” 

The organism infects people by entering the body through the nose. Swimming and diving in warm freshwater are often the causes. 

Sheehy says that although risk of infection is very low, concerned individuals may wish to avoid swimming, boating or engaging in other freshwater activities. Additionally, she offers this advice for those wanting to take extra precaution in freshwater: 

  • Keep your head out of the water while swimming, sitting or standing
  • Plug your nose or use a nose clip while swimming
  • Be careful not to stir up sediment in shallow areas
  • Avoid entering hot springs, as well as warm lakes, ponds and rivers 

According to MDH, the United States has seen 35 cases from 2005 to 2014, with the vast majority being reported in warmer southern states. Minnesota saw cases in 2010 and 2012.


Mayo Clinic Health System consists of clinics, hospitals and other health care facilities that serve the health care needs of people in more than 60 communities in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive the highest-quality health care close to home.



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