12-year-old infected with ‘brain-eating amoeba’ clings to life at Miami Children’s Hospital

The parents of 12-year-old Zachary Reyna are praying for a miracle.

Each day for the past few days, they have gathered at Miami Children’s Hospital, praying that Zachary will overcome a rare “brain-eating” infection in his brain. Called Naegleria fowleri, the microscopic, single-cell amoeba is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers. Once it infects a human, it is usually fatal.

Wednesday, Zachary’s uncle Daniel Reyna said the family was focusing on Zachary and publicizing a Facebook page, “pray4number4,” made in his honor. He said the family would be willing to talk more about Zachary once his condition improves.

Thursday, the family said on Facebook that Zachary’s condition was worsening.

Family members say Zachary was infected Aug. 3 while knee-boarding with friends in a water-filled ditch near his home in LaBelle, a small town midway between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers. State health officials said it is a medical mystery why some people who swim in amoeba-containing water contract the fatal condition while many others don’t.

The amoeba usually enters the body through the nose and travels up to the brain. There, it can cause a brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) and destroy brain tissue, the Florida Department of Health said.

“The effects of PAM on the individuals who contract the amoeba are tragic,” Carina Blackmore, Florida’s interim state epidemiologist, said in a statement.

“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 a news release.

Symptoms usually appear within a week and may include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. The disease progresses rapidly, and other symptoms can include stiff neck, 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 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.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says victims die, on average, about five days after infection. Some victims are diagnosed only after their deaths.

Wednesday morning, five LaBelle-area pastors and hundreds of residents gathered at the town’s Veterans Memorial Park for a prayer vigil.

It was organized by Susan Whidden, a resident who works at Seacoast National Bank. Donations were taken on behalf of the family, said Brenda Barnes, spokeswoman for the Glades County Department of Health.

In a YouTube video posted by user “Don Browne,” the organizers and leaders spoke, occasionally choking up, and noting that while they did not know Zachary or his family, they wanted to show their support for him because it “could have been them.”

A post on the Facebook page for Zachary includes additional information on how to donate to help cover the youngster’s medical expenses and to raise awareness. The latest post features a photo of Zachary having fun atop a bright orange all-terrain vehicle.

The family’s last post on the page, which has over 6,000 “likes,” came shortly after the vigil began Wednesday morning, and offered thanks to the community:

“We want to thank everyone who came out this morning to pray. We watched via FaceTime and were able to pray and sing with you. It means so much to us that our community has gone out of their way to pray and support us. We love you all.”

“When something happens close to home we really come together,” said Barnes. “That’s why I love living in a small town.”

Barnes also spoke Wednesday at an event at the Glades County Department of Health that was originally supposed to be a back-to-school event for parents, but changed into an information session about the deadly amoeba.

Zachary’s case is the second to be diagnosed in recent weeks. A 12-year-old girl from Arkansas, Kali Hardig, was infected by the amoeba a month ago after swimming in the Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, but has survived. The CDC has reportedly given Zachary’s doctors permission to try a drug that proved to aid Kali’s recovery.

She became the third well-documented case since 1962 of a person in North America surviving the infection, according to the CDC.

It was not immediately known whether doctors would administer the drug to Zachary.

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