LABELLE — 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 (nuh-GLEER-ee-uh FOWL-er-eye), a microscopic single-celled living amoeba that is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers.
It 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.
Florida officials cited federal statistics showing that 28 infections were reported in the United States 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 the bug 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.
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 one to seven 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.