MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A young swimmer is critically ill Tuesday night after contracting a brain-eating amoeba in a Minnesota lake.
There have been just 35 confirmed cases of the freshwater amoeba, nationwide, in the past decade.
Two of those were in Minnesota.
Seven-year-old Annie Bahneman died in 2010 after swimming in a Stillwater lake. And 9-year-old Jack Ariola Erenberg, of Forest Lake, died two years later after swimming in the same lake. Both had confirmed cases of PAM.
The Minnesota Department of Health says PAM is a very rare and severe brain infection caused by an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.
While government health leaders call the amoeba rare, grieving families disagree.
Erenberg never knew 11-year-old Hailee Lameyer, of Stacy. But Erenberg’s dad, Jim Ariola, and Lameyer’s mom, Heidi, sure are glad they know each other now.
“We met when Jack passed away and we’ve been working together ever since,” Ariola said.
Erenberg’s case was confirmed in 2012. For years, Lameyer’s parents didn’t know how she died of an infection, in 2008, after swimming. It’s now suspected it was also an amoeba.
“We talk about her all the time,” Heidi Lameyer said. “We use her as an example for others.”
Ariola said he agreed while holding his younger son on his shoulder: “We don’t want anybody to forget this little guy is without a brother.”
Now there is a new reminder to them both — a child swimming in another Minnesota lake is critically ill. The Department of Health says hospital specimens confirmed the amoeba, an infection freshwater swimmers get from water in their nose.
Health officials say the only way to avoid it is by avoiding the water, but keeping your head above water can help. That tip is the namesake of these parents’ organization, SwimAboveWater.org. (The amoeba can’t be contracted from drinking water.)
“Keep the fresh water out of your nose,” Heidi Lameyer said. “It just doesn’t seem that hard to me. We wear life jackets, we wear seatbelts to minimize risk. What’s the problem with keeping the water out of the nose?”
And although the numbers suggest the risk is low, these two parents know the stakes could not be higher.
“People can say it’s rare all they want,” Ariola said. “We live five minutes apart from each other. It’s not rare.”
The parents say a pair of $2 nose plugs could also help save a precious life.
The Minnesota Department of Health Waterborne Diseases Unit Supervisor Trisha Robinson offered these tips:
“There is a low-level risk of infection from Naegleria in any freshwater,” Robinson said. “While the only sure way to prevent PAM is to avoid participation in freshwater-related activities, you can reduce your risk by keeping your head out of the water, using nose clips or holding the nose shut, and avoiding stirring up sediment at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas.”
More information about PAM and Naegleria fowleri is available on the MDH website.
There is no additional public information regarding the status of the child who contracted the amoeba on Tuesday at this time.