Monday, June 22, 2009

Learn to keep life's dangers in perspective

Simply Living

(First Appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 22, 2009)

During a recent medical appointment, my daughter and I sat in the waiting room while a large-screen TV tuned to Central Florida News 13 blasted the midday news.

"With these hot temperatures," the reporter began, "health officials are warning residents to be aware of amoebas, an invisible but potentially deadly organism found in bodies of fresh water."

"Great," I thought. "As if the news wasn't scary enough with wars in Iran and Afghanistan, nuclear testing in North Korea and swine flu cases reaching pandemic proportions, Central Florida News 13 has kindly given us one more thing to worry about -- invisible amoebas lurking in overheated freshwater lakes and under-chlorinated swimming pools. That's just lovely."

The report went on to quote an Orange County Health Department official who urged swimmers to take precautions. A local lakeside resident emphasized the importance of becoming educated about water dangers while a would-be boater decided to forgo an afternoon of family  fun on the water after hearing (probably from the reporter) about the potential presence in the lake of "deadly amoebas."

Come on now. Do amoebas actually pose a threat serious enough to keep boaters and swimmers out of the water when the thermometer hits the 90s? Is a report like the one my daughter and I watched necessary in these already overly anxious, tremulous times? Or is it just another example of the media overemphasizing uncommon risks because they're rare and therefore seem more newsworthy?

As with most threats, it's important to separate fact from fear. According to an information sheet produced by the University of South Florida for the Lake County Water Authority, Naegleria fowleri live in fresh water worldwide. Although the single-cell protozoan is common, infection is rare. In order for it to enter human anatomy, water containing the amoeba must be forced up the nose or ears.

That might happen during falls in a high-impact sport such as water skiing or when jumping or diving into water. The infection is not transmittable from person to person and cannot enter the system by swallowing water. The amoeba does not live in salt water. Preventive measures include staying out of stagnant water or poorly maintained swimming pools, wearing nose plugs and earplugs when submerged and avoiding underwater swimming entirely.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illuminates further:

"Infections are very rare even though Naegleria is commonly found in freshwater. In the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, 33 infections were reported in the U.S. By comparison, during the ten years from 1996 to 2005, there were over 36,000 drowning deaths in the U.S."

Florida ranks third in unintentional drowning, according to the Florida Department of Health. Between 2001 and 2005, 2,327 people drowned in the Sunshine State, an average of 465 people a year.

Let's see if I have this straight: Over a 10-year period, an average of about 3 people per year nationwide were infected with a deadly amoeba while an average of 3,600 people per year (more than 1,000 times as many) drowned. If the media's objective is to inform the public, wouldn't it be more effective to increase water safety education instead of terrifying us with unlikely demons?

Life is dangerous business. In 2007, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 75 Floridians died in boating accidents. The same year, automobile accidents claimed 3,221 lives, according to the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. And the Florida Department of Health reported a whopping 41,956 deaths from heart disease.

Any life lost to disease or accident is a tragedy. We can take measures to minimize risks, but we can't avoid them all. To live a happy life, people must learn to analyze information, make educated decisions, apply precautions and, above all, keep things in perspective.

Unlike the boater interviewed by News 13, I intend to take full advantage of our lake during the hot summer months. Are there amoebas in my lake? Probably, but that doesn't mean they are out to get me. By taking safety measures -- keeping my head above water, avoiding high-impact water sports and wearing nose plugs when submerged -- the already slim risk of amoeba infection can be further decreased.

When the temperature goes up, I plan to cool down in the water. Anyone up for a swim?

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