Fatality from brain-eating amoeba confirmed in Arkansas

Cerebrospinal fluid smear containing trophozoites of brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri and neutrophils is shown in this 3D illustration. / Getty Images
Cerebrospinal fluid smear containing trophozoites of brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri and neutrophils is shown in this 3D illustration. / Getty Images

A 16-month-old boy from Little Rock died last week from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, the infection caused by the brain-eating amoeba, the Pulaski County coroner said.

The state Department of Health, without naming the person, confirmed Thursday an Arkansas resident had died from an infection caused by the amoeba, also known as Naegleria fowleri.

The department said in a news release the individual was likely exposed to while playing in a splash pad at the Country Club of Little Rock.

Coroner Gerone Hobbs said the child, Michael Alexander Pollock III died the evening of Sept. 4 at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

His obituary, published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 6, read in part, “Michael’s time on Earth was short, [but] he touched the hearts of family, friends, and even strangers he came across with his illuminating smile and playfulness.”

The Health Department sent samples from the pool and splash pad to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.

The CDC confirmed that one of the samples from the splash pad had traces of Naegleria fowleri, she said.

The CDC is still awaiting results from the remaining samples, McNeill said.

A person who answered the door at the Pollock household on Thursday said the boy's parents, Michael Jr. and Julia, were out of state and that it would be a while before they returned home.

Blaine Burgess, the general manager at the Country Club of Little Rock, did not return a voicemail message or email Thursday.

“The department has been in contact with the Country Club of Little Rock and they have been cooperative in inquires with [us],” the Health Department said in its release.

On Thursday, the pool at the country club was not open, but was still filled with water. A man from a pool-cleaning service was on the premises.

Naegleria fowleri thrives in warm, low-level fresh water. The amoeba itself is very common, regularly found in rivers, lakes and streams, but can also be found in inadequately chlorinated pools and splash pads, according to the CDC.

Rarely does Naegleria fowleri infect people.

The amoeba lives at the bottom of the bodies of water. In the case of a river or stream, it is usually found in the sediment. In order for it infect someone , it must be inhaled through the nose and make its way to the brain, health experts say.

People cannot get infected from swallowing water contaminated with the amoeba, according to the Health Department.

According to the CDC, only about three people are infected by the amoeba in the U.S. each year.

Those who are infected rarely survive. The death rate from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM, is 97%, according to the CDC.

The last known case of a person infected by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba in Arkansas was in July 2013.

Kali Hardig, of Benton, was 12 years old at the time and was infected after visiting Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, health authorities said. Hardig beat the odds and survived. The water park subsequently shut down. It was the second time in three years that someone got infected from swimming at Willow Springs.

The previous known case of PAM across the country was reported about seven weeks ago in Georgia. The victim in that case died. Health officials said the victim probably was infected while swimming in a freshwater lake or pond.

Most cases occur during the summer months. From 1962 through last year, 11 states had reported four or more cases of PAM — and all of them are in the South or Southwest, according to CDC statistcs.

One of those is Arkansas, which has had six reported cases in that period, according to the CDC.

The total number of known cases in the United States over those six decades is 152. The states with the highest number of cases are Texas — with 39 — and Florida — with 37, the CDC said.

Symptoms of infection typically start with severe headache, fever and nausea and then progress to a stiff neck, seizures, and a coma that can lead to death, according to the Health Department news release. Symptoms usually begin about five days after infection but can start within one to 12 days.

Information for this article was contributed by My Ly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.