Calif. Boy, 7, Dies from Rare Brain-Eating Amoeba After Swimming in a Lake

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There have only been ten cases of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) reported in California since 1971

Red Bluff

Nicholas Rice | Contributed

A young boy who contracted an extremely rare brain-eating amoeba while swimming in a Northern California lake has died. He was 7.

Late last month, David Pruitt of Tehama County was brought to the emergency room and then transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, where he was put on life-support with severe brain swelling, according to a GoFundMe page set up in his honor.

Over a week later, on Aug. 7, the young child died from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the crowdfunding page noted in an update.

The infection is extremely rare, the Tehama County Health Services Agency said in a prior news release, which was obtained by the Associated Press. There have only been ten cases reported in California since 1971.

When reached by the outlet for an interview, the boy’s aunt, Crystal Hayley, said the family wants “people to be aware of this amoeba and the illness signs.”

Cases of the brain-eating amoeba are extremely rare. While millions of swimmers head to the water each year in the United States, only around 1 to 8 people contract it. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, only four people out of 148 survived the infection in the U.S. from 1962 through 2019.

Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as brain-eating amoeba, is a single-celled living organism that can cause PAM, the rare and almost always fatal infection of the brain.

Brain-eating amoeba are most commonly found in warm fresh waters such as lakes, rivers, and hot springs. They also reside in poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools, staying in these habitats to feed on bacteria.

The majority of infections from amoeba have occurred in “15 southern-tier states, with more than half of all infections occurring in Texas and Florida,” according to the CDC. Naegleria is not found in saltwater.

You cannot get the amoeba by simply swallowing the water while you swim, “but can be fatal if forced up the nose, as can occur during diving, water-skiing or other water activities,” according to North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Symptoms of brain-eating amoeba generally start one to nine days after nasal exposure and many people die within 18 days of showing symptoms, according to the CDC.

Symptoms include severe headaches, fever, nausea, and vomiting in the first stage, and stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations, and coma in the second stage. Unfortunately, PAM is ultimately hard to detect because of the rapid progression of the disease. Diagnosis is typically made postmortem.

Although infection is rare, there is currently no method to reduce the number of amoeba in water. On its website, the CDC says that because of this, it is “unclear how a standard might be set to protect human health and how public health officials would measure and enforce such a standard.”

The only guaranteed way to avoid a brain-eating amoeba infection is to refrain from participating in water-related activities in warm freshwater. “Anyone that enjoys time in a body of water should cover their nose before they go in or use nose clips,” Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokeswoman Mirna Chamorro previously told PEOPLE. “As long as they don’t put their head underwater, they are okay.”

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