TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A Travis County resident got sick and died after developing an illness caused by an amebic meningitis infection after swimming in Lake Lyndon B. Johnson earlier this month.

Austin Public Health reported the death of the resident and urged people to take precautions when swimming in natural bodies of water amid the ongoing, intense heat Texas is experiencing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, amebic meningitis, or primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), is a rare brain infection that is caused by Naegleria fowleri and is usually fatal. Naegleria fowleri is a free-living ameba that lives in warm fresh water and soil around the world and infects people when the ameba enters the body through the nose. 

“Although these infections are very rare, this is an important reminder that there are microbes present in natural bodies of water that can pose risks of infection,” said Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes. “Increased temperatures over the summer make it ideal for harmful microorganisms to grow and flourish.”

The water temperature at Lake LBJ has occasionally peaked as warm as 94° this summer as record heat combines with low pass-through flow.

Precautions you can take to prevent infection:

There are many risks associated with swimming in natural bodies of water, including amebic infections, according to APH. To reduce the risk of infection, APH recommends the following precautions:

  • Limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

Causes and symptoms

Amebic meningitis does not occur if water is swallowed, but can be fatal if forced up the nose, which can occur when jumping into water, diving, water-skiing or other water activities. It is not found in salt water or in properly maintained and chlorinated pools.

Symptoms of an amebic meningitis infection start with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to stiff neck, seizures and coma and can lead to death. These rare infections usually occur when it is hot for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels.

PAM infections are rare, with only 39 known infected individuals in Texas between 1962 and 2022. PAM can cause severe illness up to nine days after exposure.

A sample specimen from the case has been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further identification.

Toxic algae in Central Texas bodies of water

Earlier this month, the Lower Colorado River Authority said toxic algae was detected in Lake LBJ and Inks Lake. LCRA said the toxicity was detected in the algae itself and not in the lake water.

Following analysis of water samples across Austin from May to June, the Austin Watershed Protection Department also confirmed toxic algae had been found in the water from several locations, including Barton Springs.

The LCRA issued this statement following this amebic infection death.

LCRA is saddened to learn a Travis County resident died after developing an illness caused by an amebic meningitis infection.

Lake LBJ and the other Highland Lakes remain open to recreation, but LCRA cautions the lakes are non-chlorinated, natural water bodies that may contain harmful ameba or bacteria. LCRA strongly recommends people take precautions to limit exposure by keeping their heads out of the water or covering their noses when jumping into the water, as the ameba enters the body through the nose.

The ameba that can cause an amebic meningitis infection thrives in warm, fresh water. Though LCRA conducts water quality testing on the Highland Lakes, we do not monitor for the ameba that can cause amebic meningitis, as the Centers for Disease Control says there is no routine and rapid test for the ameba. The CDC recommends that recreational water users always assume there is a risk for infection

The Lower Colorado River Authority

If someone has sudden, adverse symptoms after swimming, they should contact the Texas Poison Control Center at 1 (800) 222-1222 or their medical provider. The City of Austin asks if this does happen, to complete a reporting form.

Lists of current algae monitoring sites with harmful algae in Central Texas can be found on the city’s website.

Do locals feel safe on Lake LBJ after recent death?

Rickey Longabaugh took advantage of the low boat traffic Wednesday to make his boat’s maiden voyage.

“I wanted to get out, make sure it didn’t sink,” Longabaugh said.

The day had another first for the new captain, Longabaugh said he’d never heard of deadly amoeba in Lake LBJ before this news of the infection-related death.

“This was the first time I’m hearing of it. I’m usually more concerned about other people on the lake,”Longabaugh said.

Longabaugh said while this death is sad, he’s not too worried about becoming infected while out on the water the rest of this summer.

“Being out on the lake it’s a really zen thing. You feel at one with nature, it’s a great feeling,” Longabaugh said.

Walkes said as the seasons change and temperatures eventually fall, the threat of amoebas will also decrease.

“As we start to see temperatures drop and more rain, we’ll start to see a change and shift in the environment and those things will change the situation,” Walkes said.