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Lakes are safe despite recent infections, officials say

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Throughout the summer, many people will make the trek to one of the region's many lakes.

But with an infection contracted in a lake being blamed for the death of an Alexandria, Minn., boy, many may hesitate before packing up and heading out this weekend.

However, health officials in both Minnesota and North Dakota insist the lakes in the region are safe, though they encourage people to take the proper precautions.

"Many of the lakes provide a great opportunity for people to go out and enjoy our summers and recreate in them," said Trisha Robinson, waterborne diseases unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The "Land of 10,000 Lakes" has seen a run of infections causing illness and death in both humans and animals. In the last month, infections in lakes have been blamed in the death of a teenage boy, the hospitalization of another boy and the deaths of two dogs.

Serious incidents such as these, however, are extremely rare.

The infection which is believed to have caused the death of Hunter Boutain, 14, is an illness known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis. The rare and severe brain infection is caused by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which is commonly found in warm bodies of freshwater around the world during the summer months.

Millions of people are exposed to Naegleria fowleri each year, but a miniscule number ever get sick from it. In the past 10 years, there have only been 35 reported cases of PAM in the entire U.S., Robinson said. The parasite, however, was confirmed as the cause of death for two Minnesota children in 2010 and 2012.

The fatal brain infection enters the body through the nose instead of through the mouth, something which is different from other waterborne illnesses, Robinson said.

North Dakota State Epidemiologist Tracy Miller said these sorts of amoebic infections are rare in this portion of the country, but when lakes become warm, ameba levels become more active and there's a greater possibility of getting exposed to it.

"We try to tell people to take note," Miller said. "If the waters are really warm, that might not be a good time to go swimming. Or if you see that mossy junk, maybe try to find a different place to swim. But in general, we don't get a lot of infections associated with recreational use. That doesn't mean they're 100 percent safe though."

Other hazards

What is more common are any number of bacterial, parasitic or viral infections, such as cryptosporidium and giardia, that people can contract from swallowing lake water. Many of these infections only last a couple of weeks.

Most of these waterborne infections are spread when people with diarrhea, of which even a speck can contain millions of germs, swim in the water. Swimming while ill can easily contaminate water -- even if the person does not excrete any waste, Robinson said.

People then swallow the water, causing them to become infected.

"If you're ill or have been ill, we recommend that you don't go swimming," she said.

Blue-green algae is another potentially harmful substance found in area lakes and has been blamed for the hospitalization of a child and the death of two dogs near Alexandria, Minn.

This type of algae can be hard to distinguished from other types, but is often described as looking like pea soup or spilled green paint.

Animals are far more likely to contract blue-green algae infections because they are not deterred by it and drink the water or lick their fur after swimming.

Dan Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said this type of algae forms when extra nutrients, such as phosphorus, enter the water.

He said it can be hard to detect when blue-green algae is dangerous, but if the water does not look clean and it smells bad, it's best to keep away. Harmful algae blooms may also appear brown, so health officials don't recommend getting in water if it's thick or slimy.

"It can be difficult to tell if it's harmful," he said. "Conditions can dramatically change and the water can look clear and safe in the morning, but become harmful later in the day."

Though waterborne illnesses pose a threat, health officials said it is small and should not deter people from enjoying freshwater recreation.

People can avoid contamination by not swallowing water, using nose clips or by keeping their heads above water. It's also recommended people shower before and after swimming.

Miller said every section of every lake cannot be tested all the time, so people should be aware of what's happening around them and take the proper precautions when enjoying freshwater, especially when it's hot outside.

"Sometimes it's best just to be aware of what's happening," she said. "If you're starting to hear or read in the paper about people becoming ill, that might be a time to avoid doing those recreational activities."

Olson reiterated that sentiment, saying he has a rule of thumb people should follow if they're questioning whether or not to enter a lake.

"When in doubt," Olson said, "stay out."

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Teen dies from infection after swimming in lake

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