9-year-old girl dies from brain-eating amoeba in water

Posted at 7:14 AM, Jul 15, 2014

(CNN) — A brain-eating amoeba that lurks in fresh water has prompted warnings from Kansas officials after it killed a 9-year-old girl.

Hally Yust was an avid water skier and spent the past few weeks swimming in several bodies of fresh water. She died last week from Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating parasite that lives in warm, standing water.

At Hally’s funeral Monday, her family wore matching T-shirts with the logo of her water-skiing club, CNN affiliate WDAF said. Relatives honored the young athlete by announcing the Hally Yust Women’s Basketball Scholarship at Kansas State University.

“Our precious daughter, Hally, loved life and part of her great joy was spending time playing in the water,” her family said in a statement.

“Her life was taken by a rare amoeba organism that grows in many different fresh water settings. We want you to know this tragic event is very, very rare, and this is not something to become fearful about.”

‘It just causes destruction’

While Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, they can have devastating effects.

“The amoeba … finds itself way back in our noses and then can work its way into our central nervous system, around our brains,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “And once it’s there, it just causes destruction.”

Symptoms usually show up about the five days after infection, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said.

In addition to a severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, Naegleria fowleri infections often cause death.

More frequent in summer

The cases are often reported in the summer, when more swimmers take a dip in fresh water.

Last summer, 12-year-old Zachary Reyna of Florida became infected after he went knee-boarding in fresh water near his home. He later died.

Also last summer, Kali Hardig of Arkansas went for a swim and was infected by the parasite. Despite incredible odds against her, Kali survived.

Over the past 50 years, about 130 Naegleria fowleri infections have been reported. Of those, only three people — including Kali — have survived.

While humans can get infected swimming in fresh water, people cannot get infected from drinking water contaminated with the amoeba, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

How to protect yourself

The extreme rarity and randomness of infections can make it difficult to predict where they might occur.

“It is unknown why certain persons become infected with (Naegleria fowleri) while millions of others exposed to warm recreational fresh waters do not, including those who were swimming with people who became infected,” the CDC said.

The Kansas health department advises swimmers to use nose plugs when swimming in fresh water.

It also suggests not stirring up the sediment at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas and keeping your head above the water in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters.

But Naegleria fowleri is far from the biggest danger in summertime water activities. While 34 people were infected with the amoeba in the U.S. between 2004 and 2013, there were more than 34,000 drowning deaths in the United States between 2001 and 2010, the CDC said.

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