COLUMBIA A South Carolina boy has died from a rare brain infection caused by an organism that lives in warm, fresh water, according to state health officials.
The Sumter County boy, whom the Department of Health and Environmental Control did not identify, was killed Tuesday by an amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri.
Deaths caused by the organism, which lives in lakes, rivers and hot springs, are extremely rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only 32 documented cases of this kind of infection between 2001 and 2010.
The rare ailment typically is triggered when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater lakes and rivers. In very rare instances, health experts say such infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources, like inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated tap water less than 116.6 degrees, enters the nose when people submerge their heads or irrigate their sinuses.
Health officials say the amoeba causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a brain infection that leads to the destruction of brain tissue. In its early stages, symptoms may be similar to those of bacterial meningitis and can include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and stiff neck. Later symptoms include confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. After the symptoms begin, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within one to 12 days.
Family friends identified the boy as Blake Driggers, an 8-year-old from Sumter who began complaining of a fever and headaches after a trip to the beach last weekend. Mark Christmas, who sings in the church choir with Blake's father, said initially he and others felt that the boy may have simply gotten too much sun.
"We thought maybe he just had a little too much fun at the beach," Christmas said. "There was a time there for a little while that he actually felt all right."
But by Sunday afternoon, Blake whom Christmas described as an energetic boy who loved meeting new people and watching a television show about turtles had become more lethargic, and his parents took him to the hospital. By that evening, the family was told the boy's condition was serious.
"He had just become less responsive," Christmas said.
Blake died Tuesday. His aunt told a Columbia television station that an autopsy done the next day revealed his illness and death had been caused by the amoeba, which only lives in fresh water. After that revelation, the family realized that the amoeba had actually entered Blake's system the weekend before his beach trip, when the family spent the area tubing at a lake near Sumter, family spokesman Chris Moore said.
Health officials have not identified the lake, but DHEC officials advised against swimming in or jumping into bodies of freshwater when the water is warm and the water levels are low.
Moore said Blake's family is preparing for his funeral, to be held Monday at Northside Memorial Baptist Church in Sumter, and making sure their two daughters are healthy.
"They have been incredibly strong," Moore said. "They feel like this gives them a platform for God to be able to shine through."