Communities and doctors are being warned about a deadly brain disease that has proven to be fatal amongst young children swimming in rural lakes and rivers.
Doctors are on high alert after the death of a 12-month-old boy at Townsville Hospital in 2015 after contracting primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
The little boy came from a West Queensland cattle-farming area where the boy was unable to breathe on his own within 18 hours of suffering from a persistent high fever and lethargy.
Not a lot is known about PAM and it is often mistakenly diagnosed as meningitis as it has similar symptoms.
PAM is caused by a brain-eating organism called Naegleria fowleri, which can be found in warm fresh water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers, hot springs and poorly circulated water supplies.
Children that swim in rural and remote communities are most at risk where hot bore water and long surface pipelines provide the perfect environment for Naegleria fowleri to thrive.
The infection occurs when the child breathes in the water through their nose and the organism attacks the central nervous system.
Despite the disease being rare, more cases have come to light in recent years. The first confirmed case of PAM was when an 18-month-old girl from North Queensland was admitted to hospital suffering from fever, seizures and was in and out of consciousness. She died within 72 hours of being admitted to hospital.
The 18-month-old also had an older sibling who had died several years prior, diagnosed with the same disease.
In 95 per cent of cases, PAM is fatal. Greater awareness amongst doctors is needed to ensure doctors know they are treating PAM symptoms and not bacterial meningitis as the symptoms are identical for both.
Dr Claire Nicholls, who works are an emergency registrar at Townsville Hospital hopes better education will ensure medical practitioners will test for the rare disease.
The president of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, Professor Cheryl Jones says it’s vitally important for doctors and communities to be aware of the disease.
“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 if this can’t be avoided,” she said.