A 12-year-old Southwest Florida boy who contracted a rare and deadly infection from a “brain-eating” amoeba is being treated at Miami Children’s Hospital, state health officials have confirmed.
The boy, Zachary Reyna of Labelle, near Fort Myers, was infected with Naegleria fowleri — a microscopic single-celled living amoeba that is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers. Family members said the boy was infected while knee boarding with friends in a ditch near his family's home on Aug. 3.
In the body, the amoeba can cause a rare brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal, the Florida Department of Health said in a news release Tuesday. State officials confirmed the boy is battling PAM and said infections from the amoeba are rare.
“The effects of PAM on the individuals who contract the amoeba are tragic,’’ said Carina Blackmore, Florida's interim state epidemiologist. “We want to remind Floridians to be wary when swimming, jumping or diving in fresh water when water temperatures are high and water levels are low. If you are partaking in recreational swimming activities during this time, please take necessary precautions and remind your family and friends to do the same.”
Victims typically are exposed to the bug while swimming or doing water sports in warm ponds, lakes, rivers and canals during the hot summer months, mostly in the South.
The boy’s parents are keeping vigil by his bedside in the intensive care unit at the South Miami hospital and have created a Facebook page, pray4number4, to give updates on their son’s condition:
“Zac is still fighting. Doctors are saying things have not changed. We are still strong on our end because we know God will step in when He is ready. Keep praying...Thank you all for your support and please continue to pray for my family,” they wrote in the latest update.
Bridgette Cochran, whose son was with the boy when he likely was exposed, told the News-Press of Fort Myers that two other boys playing with Zachary at the time did not get sick. She said they were playing in a channel that children frequent during rainy summer months.
Experts say the amoeba gets up the nose and travels to the brain where it causes PAM, which destroys brain tissue. It's a medical mystery why some people who swim in amoeba-containing water get the fatal nervous system condition while many others don't.
"The low number of infections makes it difficult to know why a few people have been infected compared to the millions of other people that used the same or similar waters across the U.S.," Florida officials said in their news release.
Initial symptoms usually start within 1 to 7 days and may include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. The disease progresses rapidly, and other symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.
State officials said people can reduce the risks of becoming infected by limiting the amount of water going up the nose, avoiding water-related activities in warm freshwater when temperatures are high and water levels are low, and avoid digging in or stirring up sediment while in shallow, warm freshwater areas.
Florida officials cited federal statistics showing that 28 infections were reported in the U.S. from 2003 to 2012, mostly from exposure to contaminated recreational water. A person cannot be infected with the amoeba by drinking contaminated water, state officials said, and the amoeba is not found in salt water.