Brain-eating amoeba with 99% fatality rate could be treated if detected early enough, Temple doctor says

Brain-eating amoeba increases with higher temperatures and lower water levels
Published: Jul. 20, 2022 at 7:10 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - As Lake Waco’s water levels continue to drop and water temperatures stay above 80 degrees, this is a prime environment for brain-eating amoebas to flourish, increasing likelihood of swimmers contracting the 99% fatal infection. The infection can be prevented and even treated if patients detect it quickly.

The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is found in warm freshwater lakes, rivers, streams and even splash pads, especially in July, August and September.

While you cannot see the amoeba because it is microscopic, Waco mom, Laci Avant who lost her daughter, Lily Mae Avant, to the infection said you should always assume it is in the water.

Lily Mae was swimming in the Brazos River and Lake Whitney during Labor Day weekend in 2019.

Laci said Lily Mae complained about a headache and fever five days later.

They did not know that a brain-eating amoeba swam up her nose into her nervous system. She contracted Primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM, caused by the brain-eating amoeba.

Laci thought Lily Mae had the flu, since she had similar symptoms. She said the doctor did not know what the problem was.

The next day, Lily Mae was unresponsive. Laci took her to Cook’s Children Medical Center, where they did a spinal tap, found the amoeba and tried to treat her.

“She fought for a good five days, and then we had to let her go,” Laci said.

Early symptoms of PAM include a headache, stiff neck, fever, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC.

Once these symptoms start to show, it does not take long before the infection progresses rapidly, affecting memory and balance while causing confusion and mental abnormalities.

That’s why Baylor Scott & White infectious disease doctor, Dr. Ryan Beaver, said that diagnosing PAM is crucial in saving someone’s life.

“I think the biggest risk in the danger is the delay in diagnosis that happens,” he said.

Dr. Beaver said that, if a patient is showing the symptoms stated above and recently swam in a freshwater lake, river, etc., he or she should let the doctor know immediately. Then, the doctor can recommend a spinal tap and could possibly spot the amoeba.

“Just getting to the point where we’re getting a spinal tap on you, which is where we get your CSF or your cerebral spinal fluid is one of the most important parts to getting that diagnosis,” Dr. Beaver said.

If diagnosed soon enough, Dr. Beaver said they would start treating the patient with several medications.

“If we were then able to get it, look at it under a microscope and see the amoeba, you would immediately taken into the ICU and be started on some high dose antifungal and anti-parasite types of medicines,” he said.

While detecting the infection soon enough is crucial, Laci spreads awareness of the brain-eating amoeba to prevent children, like Lily Mae, from contracting the amoeba.

“We want people to be aware,” she said. “We have benefits every year to buy nose plugs. Our mission is to just make nose plugs available to anybody.”

Even though the infection is rare, the amoeba is common.

“It’s not rare until it happens to you, but it is happening more and more each,” Laci said. “We want people to be safe. We don’t want people to live with this nightmare that we wake up to every single day without our baby.”

Laci hopes to continue to keep Lily Mae’s memory alive by spreading awareness about the amoeba on the Facebook group--Lily Strong Family.

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