State confirms rare infection kills child; second fatal case involving lake in two years
By AVERY CROPP
State health officials closed Lilly Lake to swimming Tuesday afternoon after a 9-year-old Stillwater-area boy died from a rare, incurable and lethal brain infection contracted from an amoeba in the water.
By early today, Stillwater officials had taped off the Lilly Lake beach and boat launch areas to keep people out of the water.
It is the second time in two years that Lilly Lake has been ordered closed after a child has died from this brain infection, a state Department of Health official said.
“We’re about 99 percent certain that that Lilly Lake is where the child contracted the amoeba but we still need to send human specimens to the CDC to get confirmation” said Assistant State Epidemiologist Richard Danila. “It would be too much of a coincidence given the case two years ago that it was anywhere other than Lilly Lake.”
The two-year-old case Danila mentioned involved 7-year-old Annie Bahneman from Stillwater. She had taken a late summer swim in Lilly Lake and was later confirmed to have contracted the illness from that lake.
The amoeba, called Naegleri fowleri, causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) and is found in warm freshwater. It is a very rare illness with only 125 cases reported since 1924. It is mostly found in southern states and these two deaths are the only ones reported in Minnesota. Danila said this summer’s warm weather likely contributed to the amoeba’s proliferation.
“The way the amoeba gets in to you is that when you dive or go underwater it forces itself up your nose and crawls up your olfactory nerve to your brain where it proliferates,” he said.
According to Danila, infection symptoms are severe headache, neck ache, blurred vision and slurred speech. This leads to the victim falling unconscious, into a coma and results in eventual death.
Danila suggests people who go swimming in shallow, brackish pools should avoid diving, use nose plugs, or hold your nose when you go under water.
“The best thing we can do right now, while it’s still warm, is to tell people not to swim (in Lilly Lake), and people will do what they want, but the biggest thing is to let people know,” Danila said. “City officials are doing a great job letting people know too.”
According to City Administrator Larry Hansen, the boy’s death was reported to city officials about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Hansen alerted the Public Works and the Police departments and Lilly Lake was immediately closed. Mayor Ken Harycki said the county’s new emergency alert system, CodeRED, was activated for the neighborhoods surrounding the lake and leaflets explaining the closure were distributed in those areas.
Hansen is currently talking with other officials about placing permanent or semi-permanent signs at Lilly Lake to inform future users of the existence of the amoeba in the water.
It should be noted that this is not the first time this summer that an infectious parasite has caused other beaches in the area to close down. The Lake Elmo Park Reserve swimming pond was closed for several days in late July after the MDH confirmed at least two cases of cryptosporidium in persons who swam at that beach.
Washington County Parks’ officials super-chlorinated the Lake Elmo swimming pond to kill that parasite and were able to reopen the beach after the chlorine dropped to safe levels.