Saving Lives

AdventHealth Creates Test to Quickly Detect Deadly Amoeba Infections

by TERESA SCHIFFER

AdventHealth shared some news that’s pretty exciting for anyone who likes to enjoy freshwater lakes in warmer climates. Scientists have recently developed an effective test to determine whether an individual has been infected with any of three of the most common deadly amoebas lurking in our local lakes.

It’s an announcement that has been highly anticipated by the parents of the late Jordan Smelski, an 11-year-old boy who died in 2014 after contracting the Naegleria fowleri amoeba while playing in hot springs during a vacation to Costa Rica. Jordan was an energetic youngster who loved baseball and soccer, horseback riding, and swimming. He was a bright student with a cheery demeanor, and he loved his family and friends dearly. Memories of Jordan are cherished by those who knew him.

To honor their son, parents Steve and Shelly Smelski established the Jordan Smelski Foundation for Amoeba Awareness to increase awareness of the dangers of Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM).

These amoebas thrive in warm freshwater environments that contain plenty of nutrients, such as Florida’s lakes. They are able to enter the human body through a swimmer’s nose, where they then travel to the brain via the olfactory nerve. Once the organism reaches a person’s brain, it releases toxins and metabolic waste, and that, in conjunction with the body’s natural immune reaction, causes the symptoms of PAM.

PAM is characterized by symptoms such as headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting, which can appear within one to seven days after infection. As the disease progresses, more symptoms can manifest, including confusion, stiff neck, seizures, and hallucinations. Once the first symptoms appear, PAM usually causes death within five days.

Scientists have been working on this important test for several years but experienced a delay when research was halted to direct research resources to the pandemic. 

Dr. Jose Alexander, the Medical Director of the Microbiology, Virology and Immunology Department for AdventHealth Central Florida, led the team devoted to creating the new diagnostic tool. The test is similar to the tests now used for COVID detection, except that instead of a nasal swab, the amoeba test requires a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from the patient. Test results can be determined within five hours.

In a recent press conference, Alexander explained how the innovative test detects microorganisms. 

“This test is looking for the presence of DNA from the three most common, free-living amoebas that we find in freshwater bodies,” Alexander explains. “If a specific sequence of the DNA from these amoebas is present in the specimen, the test is going to amplify, or replicate, this sequence, to make it available for the instrument to identify.”

Dr. Vincent Valente, Emergency Medicine Physician with AdventHealth, worked on Jordan Smelski’s case, and as a father of three who enjoys swimming and being outdoors with his family, he was affected profoundly by Jordan’s passing. From that experience, Valente realized the importance of clinicians asking the right questions during their time with patients and the families of patients. Patients who present with symptoms consistent with these types of infections should be screened for the possibility of recent freshwater exposure.

Valente spoke briefly on behalf of emergency room doctors at the online press conference, saying, “This revolutionary test will help us confirm the diagnosis expeditiously, enabling us to initiate the proper treatment sooner, thus allowing the patients to hopefully survive this possibly lethal illness.”

The Smelskis were also on hand at the conference. 

“For me, this is just game-changing as a life-saving opportunity for other families, and that’s really what we want, is children’s lives to be saved,” Shelly Smelski says.

Prior to the development of the test, the only option available for accurately diagnosing this type of infection was a PCR test that was exclusively accessible through the CDC. For that test to be done, a clinician needed to communicate with the CDC regarding the details of the patient’s case, and then, with the CDC’s approval, a specimen had to be preserved and transported to the nearest Health Department. 

This new test has been released for use by physicians throughout Florida and the rest of the nation.

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