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Broward County resident contracts brain-eating amoeba

Brain-eating amoeba can be contracted in warm freshwater rivers, canals, lakes

WESTON, Fla. – The Florida Department of Health confirmed a person from Broward County is being treated for a brain-eating amoeba that was contracted while swimming in unsanitary water.

Experts said a person can contract the deadly brain-eating amoeba by swimming in freshwater rivers, canals and lakes. The amoeba thrives in warm freshwater, and while its extremely rare to get, nearly all contracted cases are fatal.

"This is a very unusual infection," Dr. Ignacio Echenique said. "It's also very severe, almost universally fatal."

Officials said the person from Broward County contracted the brain-eating amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba is a free-floating organism living in freshwater lakes, ponds, canals and rivers.

"The main risk is freshwater that's warm," Echenique said. "So you need a combination of the two, really, to allow this organism to propagate."

The Department of Health said the person became infected while swimming in unsanitary water on private property, but it did not say where the body of water is located.

"I don't know why they wouldn't say, 'OK, this is where it happened,' so everyone would say, 'We're not going anywhere near that,'" Weston resident David Bernstein said. 

Bernstein said he is concerned about the waterborne-illness. His home is near a lake in Weston, where early Thursday Sky 10 captured crews testing the water. While it's unclear what they were testing for, Bernstein said it happens quite often. And just Wednesday he noticed a change.

"Yesterday was definitely very murky," Bernstein said. "I couldn't, literally a foot into the water, I couldn't see the bottom, where normally it is very, very clear."

The infection caused by the amoeba destroys brain tissue and for the most part is fatal.

"What happens is when you submerge the head, when there is water in the nasal passages, that's when there can be risk of infection, when this organism can invade," Echenique said.

A teenager from Naples died of the infection in August 2013. Zachary Reyna, 13, was knee-boarding in a ditch by his home when he contracted the fatal infection. He received treatment at Miami Children's Hospital, but he died within weeks of getting the infection. 

Health experts said the infection is extremely rare. Only 35 cases have been reported since 1962. Symptoms include headaches, fever, stiff neck and confusion.

They also want to educate people that it cannot be contracted by drinking water or being around an infected person.