Polk Co. family warns of amoeba dangers after son's death

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The warning can be seen on billboards along I-4: now that summer's here, there could be something dangerous in fresh water - amoebas.

It can affect anyone, both kids and adults, swimming or playing in warm, un- or under-chlorinated water. The risk of amoebic meningitis is low, but an infection is almost 100-percent deadly.

An 18-year-old teen from Ohio died earlier this month after she was exposed to the amoeba Naegleria fowleri at a well-water-fed park in North Carolina.

The case brings back the still-fresh memory of a Bay Area family’s day of fun at a Polk County lake seven years ago. That day led to the unthinkable for 10-year-old Philip Gompf and his family.

"His first symptom was a headache," his mother, Dr. Sandra Gompf, explained.

Dr. Gompf, who is also a professor at USF's School of Medicine and specializes in infectious diseases, knew what her son faced right away.

"I can't even describe the irony," Dr. Gompf said. "We thought maybe he was tired and sent him to bed, but the next morning, when my husband went to check on him, he noted that he had a fever and was hard to wake up, and he couldn't bend his neck forward. And those are classic signs of meningitis."

Philip's father, who is also a doctor, routinely treats children with meningitis. Both parents knew what was to come.

"I knew, essentially at the time that we admitted him, that he was going to die," Sandra Gompf recalled.

Just eight days after a care-free summer day at the lake, Philip died. An autopsy confirmed his meningitis infection had been caused by an amoeba commonly found in warm, fresh water.

Most families affected by this kind of tragedy have never even heard of Naegleria fowleri, but Philip’s parents had studied its dangers for years. Since his death, Dr. Gompf has made it her goal to make others aware of the risk in freshwater, streams, ponds, lakes and even under-chlorinated water from a hose.

"As water heats up, chlorine evaporates and, if it's exposed to soil, it can become contaminated, so hose-fed toys like Slip-n-Slides and baby pools, those are the kinds of things people need to think about," Dr. Gompf warned.

Exposure to the deadly amoeba can happen when water is splashed or pushed up the nose. Dr. Gompf says deadly infections like this are easily preventable.

"All you need to do is keep the head dry, and if you can't keep the head dry, use nose clips," she explained.

Dr. Gompf also said it's absolutely fine to swim in fresh water, and getting water in your mouth isn't a big deal. The important thing is to keep untreated water from going up your nose. That's how doctors believe these amoebas are able to attack their victims.