A Florida boy is fighting for his life after doctors say he became infected with a brain-eating amoeba while swimming.
Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, first started feeling ill five days after he went swimming with his family at the Port Charlotte Beach Park on July 1, Florida news station WBBH/NBC 2 reported. His symptoms included headaches, feeling disorientated and having hallucinations, and he was then hospitalized at the Golisano Children’s Hospital.
Doctors think a brain-eating amoeba, which is known to live in warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, and hot springs, may have infected the teenager’s brain after entering his nose—a known route of infection.
Infection with an amoeba, formally known as Naegleria fowleri, is rare, with only about three cases in the US every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, cases are most often fatal due to the amoeba causing damage to the brain.
Treatments are available for the disease in the form of drug combinations, and there have been five documented cases in North America in which people have survived—most recently a 16-year-old boy who fell ill and then recovered in 2016.
Ziegelbauer has now been in hospital for more than two weeks, with family and supporters gathering outside wearing yellow—his favorite color. They are holding out for his recovery.
The boy’s aunt, Lesley Cornelisen, told WBBH/NBC 2 that they are trying “not to look at the numbers too much because there are miracles that happen every day,” she said.
Katie Chiet, another of Ziegelbauer’s aunts, told NBC 2: “A lot of times people don’t get to the hospital quickly enough… we’re hoping that we did.”
A fundraising page, titled “Wake up, Caleb,” has been set up by Chiet on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. As of Tuesday morning, it had raised just under $40,000 of its $50,000 goal.
Brain-eating amoebas aren’t exclusive to Florida. Earlier this year, the Brazos River Authority in Texas issued a warning for people to be aware of them due to rising temperatures.
The authority said there was a risk of being infected with Naegleria fowleri, which is common in all surface water worldwide. It added that people who live in warm-weather states “should assume there is a risk when entering all warm freshwater bodies.”
Infection hasn’t been shown to spread between people and doesn’t occur by drinking water. It’s not known why certain people get infected with the amoeba while millions of others exposed to warm fresh water do not.
Steps for prevention might include holding one’s nose shut, wearing nose clips, and keeping the head above water in warm freshwater; avoiding putting one’s head underwater in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters; avoiding water-related activities in warm freshwater during high water temperatures; and avoiding stirring up sediment in water, according to the CDC.
The CDC adds that the above recommendations “make common sense but are not based on any scientific testing since the low numbers of infections make it difficult to ever show that they are effective.”