Doctors are urged to be on alert this summer for a very rare but deadly brain disease in children that is contracted by swimming in lakes and rivers, with documented cases found in north-west Queensland.
The warning follows the death of a 12 month-old boy at Townsville Hospital, Australia's latest victim of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
From a nearby cattle-farming area, the baby boy was unable to breathe on his own within 18 hours of leaving home with a persistent high fever and lethargy, and died in 2015. PAM is caused by Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba - a type of organism - found in warm fresh water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers, hot springs and poorly maintained municipal water supplies.
Rural communities are particularly at risk, where hot bore water and long surface pipelines promote the growth of large concentrations of Naegleria fowleri.
Winton’s Jodi and Laine Keough, lost their one-year-old boy Lincoln Cash Keough, known as Cash, to PAM last year, the third child to die of it in the Winton region in 15 years.
Jodi Keough said the amoeba developed in their bore water supply at their homestead at Judith Royl Station.
“Each day of our living nightmare with PAM felt like a lifetime, but the reality is that the journey from Cash’s first symptom to his last breath was frighteningly quick,” Ms Keough said later as the family launched a website for their son.
Infection occurs when water enters the nose and attacks the central nervous system. The first confirmed case of PAM was an 18-month-old girl from north Queensland who presented with fever, seizures and an altered level of consciousness. She died within 72 hours. Her older sibling, who died several years prior, was retrospectively diagnosed with PAM.
PAM is rare, but fatal in 95 per cent of cases. It is also difficult for doctors to diagnose as the symptoms are identical to those of bacterial meningitis, including high fever, confusion and seizures.
It’s important doctors and communities respond immediately to PAM, says Professor Cheryl Jones.
"Any acutely unwell child with a history of bore water exposure and signs of meningitis or encephalitis should be considered for PAM as a potentially life- threatening diagnosis," said Prof Jones. "Families should avoid swimming or diving into warm fresh water or to hold their nose.”