LABELLE, Fla. (TheBlaze/AP) — Health officials in Florida said Tuesday that a 12-year-old boy is fighting a rare and deadly infection that is attacking his brain.
Family members told media outlets that Zachary Reyna of Southwest Florida was infected with Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic single-celled living amoeba that is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers.
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.
“The effects of PAM on the individuals who contract the amoeba are tragic,” said Dr. 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.”
Infections from the amoeba are rare, but there seems to be at least one case reported every summer. In 2011, the so-called “brain-eating” amoeba killed at least three people. Earlier this summer, a 9-year-old from Arkansas became infected with the amoeba but is said to be improving now.
Watch this update on the Arkansas girl who is beating the infection, which has a high mortality rate:
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.
Victims typically are exposed to it while swimming or doing water sports in warm ponds, lakes, rivers and canals during the hot summer months, mostly in the South.
Family members said the boy was infected while knee boarding with friends in a ditch near his family’s LaBelle home on Aug. 3. He is being treated in the intensive care unit at Miami Children’s Hospital.
A Facebook page has been established to express support for Reyna called Pray4Number4, referencing that if the boy survives he will be only one of four known to beat the infection. This is the latest message from Reyna’s parents posted on the page:
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.
God is working through Zac to touch so many people and we thank Him for what he has done. Just as one of the pastor’s said, keep praying. And if you have drifted and your life is not right with God, make some changes now.
Again we love and thank you all so much. Zac is a fighter and will continue to fight. We are praying and believing for big changes in Zac and all of our lives.
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.
Watch WFTX-TV’s report about the case:
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.
The CDC also urges caution for those who use neti pots, devices used to clear sinuses with water.