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State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry.

Advocate staff file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

Louisiana’s state health officer sought Monday to allay concerns over the discovery of brain-eating amoeba in an Ascension Parish water system this summer and five other systems in the past two years.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry said state and government officials are working to improve disinfection in systems where Naegleria fowleri was found but argued the discoveries are likely part of improved testing, not the sudden appearance of the amoeba in public drinking water.

“Probably this amoeba has been in our water systems, and we didn’t know it. Probably it’s in other water systems, and they don’t know it,” he said during a Baton Rouge Press Club luncheon in the Iberville Room at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino & Hotel.

Guidry said the amoeba, which thrives in warm water and is a problem in the summer, is prevalent in rivers and lakes nationwide.

Infections from the amoeba, which must travel up a person’s nose, remain rare, officials say, and water with the amoeba remains safe to drink. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 133 people are known to have been infected since 1962 and had primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Three survived. Most were infected after swimming in rivers and streams.

Guidry said the state and CDC developed a new test for the amoeba after a young Mississippi boy died in 2013 from contracting it at a home in Violet.

Guidry said the state now tests about 30 to 40 systems per year.

Tests, which are expected to continue through the summer, have already found the amoeba in water systems in St. Bernard, Ascension and Terrebonne parishes.

DHH officials said in an email Monday afternoon that Baton Rouge Water Co. has not been tested this year, but, at the news conference Monday, Guidry said Baton Rouge Water has one of the better systems in the state, with a deep aquifer that does not need a lot of treatment and has a lot of monitoring.

“It’s probably not one we’re looking at very hard because they do a great job of maintaining the water system, and they’re not having violations a whole lot,” he said.

He added the amoeba has been found in Louisiana in water systems that rely on surface water, not with deep groundwater sources. The amoeba has also been found in groundwater in Phoenix, Arizona. He said the state is testing whether Louisiana’s geology allows the amoeba to thrive.

In addition to new testing in 2013, an emergency DHH rule took effect that year to increase chlorine disinfection levels.

Guidry said most public water systems have good disinfection control where water is produced, but some have a harder time maintaining disinfection in long stretches of pipe where water use is minimal.

Naegleria fowleri was found July 28 in the Ascension Consolidated Utility District No. 1 water system on the outskirts of Donaldsonville. Ascension, which buys water from other systems and moves it by pipe, has blamed troubles with disinfection on long stretches of pipe with low use.

The state ordered Ascension to do a temporary boost of chlorine levels, known as a chlorine burn, to kill the amoeba.

Guidry said the district had successfully raised chlorine levels to start the 60-day clock for the chlorine burn Aug. 17. St. Bernard’s burn period started Aug. 5, while the Schriever Water System in Terrebonne isn’t ready yet, he said.