Public meetings in outback Queensland relieve anxiety about waterborne ‘brain-eating’ parasite

Water on a rural propertyPHOTO: The parasite Naegleria fowleri, which causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis [PAM], can be found in warm untreated water, commonly on rural properties. (ABC Open: Gemma Deavin)

MAP: Winton 4735

Public meetings have been held in three outback Queensland towns this week to share information about a potentially deadly waterborne parasite.

Media player: “Space” to play, “M” to mute, “left” and “right” to seek.

The parasite, Naegleria fowleri, causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which recently garnered national attention following an episode of ABC TV’s Australian Story.

The story featured Jodi and Laine Keough, of Judith Royl station near Winton in western Queensland,whose son Cash died in April after being exposed to the parasite.

Naegleria fowleri is found in warm, untreated water, commonly on rural properties.

Contracting the disease is extremely rare, with fewer than 30 recorded cases in Australia.

Information sessions help to dispel anxiety

Public health specialist Dr Kerryn Coleman, of Central Queensland Public Health, delivered information sessions in Winton, Longreach and Barcaldine in recent days.

It’s not like other organisms … PAM actually has to come from water forced up the nose, so it travels through the smell nerves.

Dr Kerryn Coleman, Central Queensland Public Health

Dr Coleman said it had been wonderful that Mr and Mrs Keough had publicly shared their experience because they had helped to significantly raise awareness about the parasite.

“It’s been amazing the degree of interest we’ve had out here, so it’s given us an opportunity to come out and spread our message,” she said.

Cash Keough is one of three children known to have died in the Winton Shire Council area as a result of the parasite.

Dr Coleman said the information session in Winton was particularly well attended, and she was optimistic the information provided had helped to put people’s minds at ease.

“I hope so. There has been a feeling that some people have come in a little bit anxious, particularly some people who brought their little children,” she said.

“Having the opportunity to ask questions and clarify some of the myths and truths has been good I think.”

Affected parents attend workshop

Dr Coleman said parents of two of the three children who had died in the Winton region attended workshops this week.

“From my perspective, it’s been fantastic,” Dr Coleman said.

Baby Cash with cowsPHOTO: Baby Cash Keough died after falling sick on his family’s farm near Winton. (Supplied)

“They’ve been able to give their own personal perception on what they’ve done, particularly with respect to the prevention messages, and that’s been very powerful.”

Dr Coleman said one of the key things people could do to avoid contracting the parasite was to stop the flow of untreated, warm water into the nose.

“It is not like other organisms, which we generally get by drinking or eating through our mouth or through our skin,” she said.

“PAM actually has to come from water forced up the nose, so it travels through the smell nerves.”

She said that was part of the reason why toddlers and teenagers were at the highest risk of contracting the parasite.

“Teenagers jump into lakes and dams off those ropes, they dunk each other, and that can force fresh water up the nose,” Dr Coleman said.

“But also toddlers, they’re often playing with sprinklers, falling in the bath, having the hose which they force up their mouth, and that’s how the fresh warm water can get into their nose.”

Dr Coleman said installing an appropriate filtration system for the house water supply also could reduce any potential risk.