Health officials say a New York college student has died of a rare brain infection she probably contracted while swimming in a body of fresh water in Maryland.
People may think there is nothing more terrifying than a "brain-eating" amoeba like the one that recently killed a New York college student who authorities believe was infected in a Cecil County swimming hole.
But there are only a handful of such cases nationally each year, and government data shows there has never been another case linked to Maryland.
"It's so rare that every time there is case of a Naegleria fowleri amoeba it grabs headlines," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America. "It's not on par with influenza, for example."
Almost 35,000 people visited an emergency room last season in Maryland with flu symptoms.
Other nasty viruses and bacteria are far more threatening than amoebas. People in Maryland, for example, are more likely to contract West Nile (six cases) and even more likely to come down with dengue (nine cases), typhoid fever (16 cases), chikungunya (61 cases) or malaria (146 cases), according to data collected by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2014, the latest available.
Marylanders might, however, be better off avoiding other humans rather than microorganisms because the most common infectious diseases officially tracked are sexually transmitted. In 2014 there were 27,424 cases of chlamydia and 6,108 cases of gonorrhea.
But that's not to say bigger critters aren't dangerous. There were 1,373 cases of Lyme disease, passed on by ticks. Another 10,085 people were bit by an animal, putting them at risk for rabies, which is fatal if untreated.
The newest threat — and perhaps the biggest headline grabber — is mosquito-borne Zika. Maryland reports no locally transmitted cases, though 95 people who have traveled have tested positive for the virus, which can devastate fetal brains when pregnant women are infected.
Christopher Garrett, spokesman for the state health department, said it's possible to avoid all the infections.
"There are steps that Marylanders can take steps to protect themselves," he said, "whether it's using nose clips when jumping into warm, shallow water; using abstinence, monogamy and barriers such as condoms to guard against such sexually transmitted infections as chlamydia, Zika or HIV/AIDS; preventing mosquito bites to guard against Zika or West Nile Virus; or avoiding the handling or petting of wildlife to prevent rabies exposure."