NEW ORLEANS (CBS Houston/AP) — A deadly brain-eating amoeba found in the St. Bernard Parish water supply could be the fault of Hurricane Katrina.
Jake Causey, chief engineer for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, told The Times-Picayune that a theory being explored is the water becoming stagnant and contaminated due to the depopulation of St. Bernard Parish following the 2005 hurricane that killed over 1,800 people.
“Certainly immediately post-Katrina, the St. Bernard population was greatly reduced, and to have a water system designed to provide water to that many people and then you lose half of them, part of the concern would be, just from a water quality perspective, that the water would just be sitting in the pipes, aging, and you could have a deterioration of the water quality,” Causey said.
Causey explained that since less people use the water supply, there is a lack of fresher water with higher chlorine residuals that would kill the amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri.
“If the water just sits there, then those (chlorine) residuals dissipate over time and you can have a situation where you have more microbial growth and activities,” Causey told The Times-Picayune.
A 2010 census report shows that the population plummeted 47 percent from the 2000 population of 67,229. But the 2013 census shows that the parish is growing as the population increased 16 percent since 2010.
Causey does state, though, that the Katrina connection is “speculative and would need to be proven.”
Test results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was found in four locations of the St. Bernard Parish water system, the state Department of Health and Hospitals announced.
State health officials say the water is safe to drink but can pose a risk of infection if the amoeba enters a person’s nose.
St. Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans, started flushing its water lines with additional chlorine as a precaution after the state linked the amoeba to the encephalitis death of the child, a 4-year-old boy from Mississippi who was visiting a home in the parish. The state says residents also can protect themselves by chlorinating their pools and avoiding getting water in their nose.
Earlier tests had confirmed the amoeba was present at the home. Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state epidemiologist, said investigators suspect the boy became infected while playing on a “slip-and-slide.”
“It was the only time where he was in contact with some water that could have penetrated all the way up into his nose,” Ratard said.
The process of flushing the parish’s water system with chlorine is expected to continue for several weeks. Ratard said the test results aren’t cause for residents to panic.
“You just have to be a little more careful,” he said.
Parish President Dave Peralta said tests will continue “until I am totally satisfied that everything is OK.” Peralta, who has urged residents to remain calm, said he has seen a mixed reaction to the nerve-jangling discovery.
“I have some people who are understandably very concerned,” he said. “Quite honestly, some people are making jokes about it to keep a smile on their face.”
The boy’s death is the third linked to the Naegleria fowleri amoeba in Louisiana since 2011, when a 51-year-old DeSoto Parish woman and a 20-year-old St. Bernard Parish man both died after becoming infected. A total of 32 infections were reported in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010.
“This parasite exists all over,” Peralta said. “It’s not unique to St. Bernard Parish.”
The state says swimming or diving in freshwater lakes and rivers is the most common way to be exposed to the amoeba. Infections from other sources, such as heated tap water and swimming pool water that is inadequately chlorinated, are rare.
In the early stages, symptoms of an infection from the amoeba are similar to those of bacterial meningitis and include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck. Later symptoms include confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.
At least two other parishes in southeast Louisiana are acting in response to the discovery in St. Bernard Parish. St. Charles Parish said it has increased sampling of its water system, while Plaquemines Parish has asked the state to test its water system and planned to flush its water lines over the weekend.
“There is no reason to believe that we have a problem with our water,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said in a statement. “The steps we are taking are purely precautionary measures.”
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