Amoeba deaths are rare, health officials say
— County health officials repeated Tuesday what they had said last month when they first learned of the death of a New York woman from a rare brain disease determined by officials to be likely contracted in Cecil County: it’s “very rare.”
Cecil County Health Officer Stephanie Garrity and Clinical Deputy Health Officer Dr. Henry Taylor updated the Cecil County Council Tuesday on the incident, at the council’s request. It was part of a Board of Health presentation, which included an overview of the county’s recently completed community health improvement plan.
The New York Department of Health confirmed on Sept. 2 that 19-year-old Kerry Stoutenburgh died from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, also known as the “brain-eating amoeba,” and likely contracted it while swimming in Cecil County while on vacation in August.
Stoutenburgh was in Cecil County visiting her uncle, Harold T. O’Neal Jr., of Elkton.
O’Neal told the Cecil Whig in early September that Stoutenburgh jumped into Northeast Creek and
Octoraro Creek to swim while here.
“However, she was diagnosed, hospitalized and died after returning home to New York,” Taylor said.
“There are only about three to four deaths a year in the nation from this amoeba,” Garrity told the county council Tuesday. It is naturally present in bodies of warm freshwater and is very widespread, especially in the southern states, she explained.
“The best preventive action is almost too simple,” Garrity said. “Keep water out of your nose.”
Research shows the amoeba enters the body directly through the nose. Most common symptoms are headaches, stiff neck and fever, which are meningitis-like symptoms. Garrity recommends telling a doctor immediately if you have those symptoms and were swimming in freshwater recently.
“I was really worried about the possible impact on our tourism when I heard about this,” Council- man Dan Schneckenburger said.
Taylor said there is medicine available to treat this if caught early enough and the doctor knows the patient had been swimming.
“The risk of contracting this infection is very low, but it is present in any warm body of freshwater,” Taylor emphasized. “There’s really no reason not to swim here.”
Health officials advise using nose clips, or holding one’s nose, if swimming in fresh water. Posting signs is unlikely to be an effective way to prevent infections, according to officials, because the Naegleria fowleri occurrence is common, but infections are rare.
Symptoms start one to nine days after exposure to the amoeba, while fatalities occur anywhere from one to 18 days after exposure. The amoeba travels up the olfactory nerve to the brain where it can cause infection.
Dan Coulter, health policy analyst for the health department, presented the county’s updated community health plan to the county council Tuesday, as well.
It focuses on three priorities: behavioral health, chronic disease and determinants of health, such as homelessness and poverty.
“These are the goals for the next three years,” Coulter said.
The plan details specific goals within each priority and lays out a method to measure whether the goals have been reached.
“This is a very robust plan,” Garrity said. “But, I think it can be reached with a coordinated effort.”
Daniel Coulter, health policy analyst, from left; Dr. Henry Taylor, county clinical director, and Fred von Staden, county environmental health director, address council concerns about a rare amoeba death earlier this year.