A Florida teen is fighting for his life after being infected with Naegleria fowleri, or brain-eating amoeba.
Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, has been hospitalized since contracting the rare infection while swimming at Port Charlotte Beach on July 1, his family revealed in a GoFundMe post.
One week later, Caleb started experiencing a fever, headaches and hallucinations. His family rushed him to the emergency room where doctors confirmed that a brain-eating amoeba had entered his body.
“A lot of times people don’t get to the hospital quickly enough. We’re hoping that we did,” Caleb’s aunt, Katie Chiet, told NBC2.
“Unfortunately the Naegleria fowleri presents as if a child has meningitis,” Chiet added, noting that it took a couple days of his symptoms before the family realized exposure to the water could be the cause.
Caleb has been fighting the infection at Golisano Children’s Hospital, where his family said doctors have been following CDC protocols since July 10. Chiet created a GoFundMe account for Caleb’s recovery which has already raised nearly $27,000.
“It’s very lonely and isolating to walk this path because we don’t know where we are on any kind of timeline,” Chiet told NBC. “It’s day 17 and Caleb is still breathing on his own. Are we in the clear? Are we on the path to healing? Are we waiting for something else to happen.”
Naegleria fowleri, commonly referred to as brain-eating amoeba, is a single-celled living organism that can cause a rare and almost always fatal infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). According to a CDC report, only five people in the US out of 154 from 1962 until today have survived the infection.
“We’re hoping against hope that Caleb becomes survivor #6 but we have a long road ahead of us,” said Chiet.
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Brain-eating amoeba is most commonly found in warm fresh waters such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. It also resides in poorly maintained or minimally chlorinated swimming pools, staying in these habitats to feed on bacteria.
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. These include severe headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting in the first stage and stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status, hallucinations and a coma in the second stage. PAM, the infection caused from the amoeba, is ultimately hard to detect though, because of the rapid progression of the disease. The diagnosis is typically made postmortem.
Although infection is rare (there are less than 8 infections per year), there is currently no way to reduce the number of amoebas in water. On its website, the CDC says 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 brain-eating amoeba infections 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,” Mirna Chamorro, a Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokeswoman, previously told PEOPLE. “As long as they don’t put their head under water, they are okay.”
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