published Sunday, September 15th, 2013

St. Bernard Parish schools shut off water fountains because of brain-eating amoeba threat

CHALMETTE, La. — The superintendent of St. Bernard Parish public schools says she has shut down drinking fountains in elementary and middle schools because a rare brain-damaging amoeba has been found in parish water.

The school system is providing other water to children, Doris Voitier told The Times-Picayune.

"While we know that drinking the water is no problem whatsoever, my only partial concern was possibly with the younger children at the schools -- the concern that it could possibly go up their noses while they were drinking," Voitier said Friday. "So out of an abundance of caution, we got our maintenance crew out there last night and turned off the water systems in all our elementary schools and middle schools."

On Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the amoeba was found at four spots in the parish water system. Earlier, the CDC had confirmed that a Mississippi boy died in August from a brain infection he likely contracted playing on a Slip 'n Slide while visiting in St. Bernard in July.

The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is killed by stomach acid, boiling or chlorine. It infects people by entering through the nose and entering the brain, where it causes encephalitis.

Voitier said school officials have set up water coolers throughout the schools and that water also is available in school cafeterias. The parish public school system has about 7,200 students in 11 facilities.

"Until I got more information, I just wanted to err on the side of caution," Voitier said. "And, as I get more information, we will talk about re-enabling the water fountains."

Lynn Oaks School also shut off its water fountains on Friday and sent a note to parents asking them to be careful in how they discuss the matter as not to cause "widespread panic among our school children."

Our Lady of Prompt Succor School, an elementary and middle school in Chalmette, shut off sinks as well as water fountains, putting hand sanitizer in all restrooms and classrooms and handing out bottled water, said Sarah McDonald with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The school held a Friday morning assembly explaining to students that it was a "precautionary measure," McDonald said.

Just half a mile away, on East Judge Perez Drive, Breaux Mart store manager Jared Thomas said that the grocery store on Friday already had sold about double the amount of water compared to a typical day.

"But, last week, we ordered a bunch extra just in case," Thomas said. "So we will have plenty of water to go around."

Out of 50 to 60 areas sampled, only four fire hydrants and two home water faucets tested positive, Parish President Dave Peralta said Friday.

"Ironically, I am getting more calls about the smell of the chlorine in the water than I am about the parasite in the water," he said. "Even though I do not believe this is the worst-case scenario, we have to treat it as that and be very cautious and treat the system very aggressively."

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