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Who's to blame for an American lake's brain-eating amoeba?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 24/06/2017 Tim Evans
This is brain tissue that has been attacked by naegleria fowleri, also called "the brain-eating amoeba." © George R. Healy, CDC This is brain tissue that has been attacked by naegleria fowleri, also called "the brain-eating amoeba."

INDIANAPOLIS — Public officials had no legal obligation to protect a man who died after a brain-eating amoeba entered his nose as he swam at a county park beach, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled this week.

The ruling reverses a Dubois Circuit Court judge’s decision that would have allowed a lawsuit to go forward against Daviess County, Daviess County Health Department and the Daviess-Martin County Joint Parks and Recreation Board. The suit was filed by the family of Waylon Abel, who died Aug. 7, 2012, from a rare but fatal infection that destroys brain tissue.

Abel, 30, of Loogootee, is believed to be the only person in Indiana to die from PAM, or primary amebic meningoencephalitis. The infection is triggered by the microscopic, water-borne organism Naegleria fowleri, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amoeba is transferred to victims, the CDC reports, through water entering the nose while swimming in warm lakes and rivers.

The CDC reports Naegleria fowleri “is commonly found in warm freshwater (e.g. lakes, rivers, and hot springs) and soil.” But, risk of infection is low. Only 37 cases were reported between 2006 and 2015.

The 2014 lawsuit alleged the county and parks board were responsible for West Boggs Lake and failed to protect Abel and the public from the deadly organism.

Abel is believed to have been infected while swimming in the 622-acre West Boggs Lake near Loogootee, Ind., on July 15, 2012. Weather records indicate the day was humid and hot, with a high in the 80s, when Abel went for the fateful swim at the lake’s public beach.

He became ill several days later and died at an Evansville hospital just days after his symptoms, including headaches and nausea, first appeared.

The three-judge court of appeals panel ruled the county and parks board did not have — so it did not breach — a duty to protect Abel because his fate was not foreseeable. The court ruled that leaves no issue to be decided at trial, effectively dismissing the case.

“Although the circumstances here were tragic,” Judge Michael P. Barnes wrote in the opinion, “we conclude that the County, Parks Board and Health Department did not have a duty to Abel. Consequently, the trial court erred when it denied their motions for summary judgment.”

Abel’s family has a Facebook page called Waylon Abel-Amoeba Awareness, where they post information about his case and others around the U.S. An update from October says, in part:

“We just want families to be aware and safe when swimming in fresh water. Please use precautions when getting in any fresh water lake. Remember it's 100% preventable.”

The post includes two tips: “keep head above water” and “wear a swim mask or nose clips.”

The CDC reports much is still unknown about who gets infected while swimming and why because there have been so few cases to study. While infection is rare, the only certain way to avoid exposure, the CDC says, is to "refrain from water-related activities in warm freshwater."  

Follow Time Evans on Twitter: @starwatchtim

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