Tanner Lake Wall, 13, died on August 2 after he got sick from a microscopic single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowleri — often referred to as the brain-eating amoeba. If a person is infected with the amoeba, it is usually fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States has seen 145 cases of infection caused by the amoeba between 1962 and 2018. Only four of those infected have survived.
Tanner’s death happened days after he was on a family vacation in North Central Florida at a campground with a water park and lake. While it is not confirmed that the infection happened at this location, it is known that the amoeba thrives in warm water locations like this. Tanner’s family says the boy got sick two days after swimming with friends and family.
Back in July of this year, the Florida Health Department reported another case of Naegleria fowleri in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located. It is unknown what happened to that person.
How You Get It
The amoeba enters a person’s body through the nose. While it has been found in soil, it is usually in warm bodies of freshwater, including:
- Hot springs
- Warm water discharge from industrial plants
- Human-made aquatic venues that are not adequately chlorinated
- Infrequently in contaminated tap water and hot water heaters
The amoeba makes its way from the nose to the brain and spinal cord. It then destroys the brain tissue by causing the disease, primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
Infections from the brain-destroying organism occur most often during the months of July through September. During this time there are prolonged periods of hot weather resulting in higher water temperatures, lower water levels, and greater numbers of people seeking relief from the heat spending more time in the water.
Infections have occurred in nineteen different US states and in the US Virgin Islands. Cases have been seen on both coasts and as far north as Minnesota.
Symptoms of the brain-eating infection can begin as early as one day after exposure and as long as nine days. Symptoms include:
- Severe frontal headache
- Stiff neck
- Altered mental status
Infection is not spread from person to person. You cannot get an infection from drinking or accidentally swallowing water that is contaminated by Naegleria fowleri.
That said, another potential entry of the amoeba into the body — which has been documented — is through the use of contaminated tap water in Neti pots for nasal rinsing. Two cases have been reported in the US from Neti Pot use. One case in the US and more cases globally have been reported from ritual nasal rinsing, a practice of followers of the Islamic faith. It is recommended that water used for ritual nasal rinsing or for use with a Neti pot be boiled or distilled. If this is not an option, the water can be filtered or disinfected.
Tanner Wall’s Death
When Tanner Wall’s parents took him to Putnam Community Medical Center, he was diagnosed with strep throat. When his condition worsened — including nausea, vomiting, headaches, and a stiff neck — they took him UF Health in Gainesville. This was where they were told about the Naegleria fowleri amoeba.
Tanner’s condition worsened. Then, on August 2, the boy had no brain activity. At that time, his parents took him off life support.
A spokesman for Putnam Community Medical Center sent News4Jax the following statement:
“The passing of a loved one is tragic and our condolences are with the family. Our attending physician advised the family that further assessments were needed; however, the recommendations were declined and the family left the facility before a diagnosis was possible. Due to privacy laws, we are unable to discuss further details of the matter.”
The CDC site warns that the amoeba is present in warm freshwater anywhere in the United States. While contracting an infection is rare, individuals should exercise caution when in warm bodies of water by trying to avoid activities where water can go up the nose.