This photomicrograph of a brain tissue specimen depicts the cytoarchitectural changes associated with a free-living, Naegleria fowleri, amebic infection. When free-living amebae infect the brain or spinal cord, the condition is known as primary amebic men (Photo by Getty Images)
HENDRY COUNTY, Fla. -- A 12-year-old Southwest Florida boy contracted a rare and deadly infection from a "brain-eating" amoeba after playing in contaminated water Aug. 3 in LaBelle, according to family, friends and public health officials.
The boy, identified as Zachary Reyna, was taken to Miami Children's Hospital for treatment over the weekend after a week of escalating flu-like symptoms.
Although the hospital has not released his condition, family and friends told media outlets Monday that he continues to fight for his survival. Others have posted messages on a special Facebook page praying for his recovery.
Two other boys playing with Zachary at the time did not get sick, said Bridgette Cochran, whose son was with the boy when he was likely exposed to the organism. All were playing in a channel in a LaBelle residential area that commonly draws children during the rainy, summer months, Cochran said.
The organism, Naegleria fowleri, is commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers, can cause rare and deadly brain infections known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
PAM destroys brain tissue and is highly lethal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one out of the 128 people infected in the United States between 1962 and 2012 survived it. Even so, only 31 U.S. cases have been reported between 2003 and 2012, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's little comfort, though, Cochran said. "It seems so rare until it's at your back door," she said.
The Zachary Reyna case comes weeks after a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas was infected with PAM. She continues to fight it, according to published reports.
The Health Department in Glades County confirmed the case Saturday but was unsure where the infection actually took place, said spokeswoman Brenda Barnes.
"There's really no way to pinpoint the water or soil source because it's naturally occurring," Barnes said.
Symptoms of PAM usually start within a week after infection and include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.
According to the health department, risk is reduced by limiting the amount of water going up your nose, avoiding water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high-water temperature and low-water levels, and by avoiding digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.
The other most recent known Florida infection happened in August 2011. According to reports at the time, it resulted in the death of a Brevard County teenager who likely was exposed to the organism in St. John's river.
In Southwest Florida, the last case involved a Bonita Springs teenager, who died from a PAM infection in 1995. The boy had been swimming in a canal swollen from the rains of Tropical Storm Jerry, according to archived reports.