Myth vs. fact: DHH dispels rumors about Naegleria fowleri ameba in Louisiana's drinking water

MGN Online
Friday, September 20, 2013 - 8:52am

The Department of Health and Hospitals wants to dispel myths and rumors associated with a recent confirmation of an ameba in the water system in St. Bernard Parish. On Thursday, DHH published a "Myth vs. Fact" rundown of common misconceptions about Naegleria fowleri and drinking water in Louisiana.

Additionally, DHH has created a page on its Website where the public can get basic information about Naegleria fowleri and DHH's response to the current situation in St. Bernard Parish. Updated information will be posted on dhh.louisiana.gov/WaterFacts

State Epidemiologist Raoult Ratard said, "It is vital that members of the public understand the risks associated with Naegleria fowleri, which is why we have worked with federal and local officials to share information about the situation in St. Bernard Parish. But we also want people to understand that our water is safe to drink and that, in areas where the ameba has not been found, there is little risk of contracting it from the drinking water supply."

Assistant Secretary for Public Health J.T. Lane said, "It's critical that everyone act on the best possible science, data and information available, which is why we want to dispel any myths surrounding the situation in St. Bernard Parish. Many top local, state and national scientists, experts and officials are working diligently and quickly to ensure our people are kept safe and healthy. Public health is the frontline of defense against new challenges nature and the built environment can throw at us."

Common myths and rumors that have been circulating during the past week, which DHH seeks to dispel, include:

MYTH: The water in St. Bernard Parish is not safe to drink.

FACT: This is false. The municipal water supply in St. Bernard Parish - and across Louisiana - remains safe to drink. The Naegleria fowleri ameba does not cause an infection if it is in water that a person drinks because the ameba is killed by normal levels of stomach acid. However, the ameba can cause an infection if it goes into a person's nose. Residents who live in St. Bernard Parish should take precautions to avoid getting water in their noses.

MYTH: Water systems all across the state are affected by Naegleria fowleri, making the water unsafe.

FACT: This is false. The only system where CDC testing has confirmed the presence of the ameba is in St. Bernard Parish. The Naegleria fowleri ameba is a naturally occurring parasite that is found in freshwater and could grow in a water system is the water is untreated. Proper chlorination and the use of disinfectants by water systems are both known to kill the ameba. St. Bernard Parish is currently flushing its water system with extra chlorine to kill the ameba. DHH and local officials are monitoring the chlorine levels on a regular basis. It is known that free chlorine or chloramine residual at 0.5 mg/L or higher will control the ameba, provided the disinfectant residual persists throughout the water supply system at all times.

MYTH: If I live in St. Bernard Parish, I should completely avoid using the tap water.

FACT: It is safe to use the tap water in St. Bernard Parish, as long as you are taking proper precautions and avoid getting the water in your nose. According to the CDC, personal actions to reduce the risk of Naegleria fowleri infection should focus on limiting the amount of water going up a person's nose and lowering the chances that Naegleria fowleri may be in the water. For information on preventative measures, please visit the CDC Website here: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/prevention.html. Safety tips can also be found at dhh.louisiana.gov/WaterFacts

MYTH: Naegleria fowleri was not found in the St. Bernard water system because water samples were taken from fire hydrants.

FACT: The CDC has confirmed the presence of Naegleria fowleri from samples taken directly from the water system in four different locations in separate areas of the parish, in addition to inside the home where the child who died this summer visited. DHH scientists pulled samples from hydrants and faucets that connected directly to the water lines. Hundreds of liters of water were filtered at these locations in order to capture any amebas that might be present in the water. Our scientists, as well as CDC officials, are confident that our testing methods produced samples of water that was in the parish's water lines.

The presence of Naegleria fowleri in this many different locations across the parish, especially coupled with the low residual chlorine levels in these same areas, is clear evidence that the ameba exists in the water system itself.

DHH is using the best available science to advise the parish of which precautionary actions to take.

MYTH: The only way to be sure that the water is safe for all uses is to test it for Naegleria fowleri.

FACT: This is untrue. The best way to ensure that the water is safe is for it to be tested and monitored for residual chlorine levels. Currently, there are no state or federal drinking water regulations that address monitoring or treatment for amebas. However, it is known that free chlorine or chloramine residual at 0.5 mg/L or higher will control Naegleria fowleri, provided the disinfectant residual persists throughout the water supply system at all times.

MYTH: The Naegleria fowleri ameba is a new problem that was only recently brought into the United States.

FACT: False. Naegleria fowleri is an ameba that occurs naturally in freshwater. Testing for this ameba is relatively new and still evolving, but it has been present in freshwater bodies of water for many years. A handful of deaths in the United States have been traced back to the ameba. In general, Naegleria fowleri infections are very rare. In the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, 31 infections were reported in the U.S. Of those cases, 28 people were infected by contaminated recreational water, and 3 people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water.

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