I think of childhood as a (generally and hopefully) carefree time when the toughest decisions involve which friend’s house to sleep at or whether to put more chocolate chips in the cookies. Battling a brain-eating parasite isn’t on that list, but that’s what 12-year-old Kali Hardig has been doing for the past few weeks. Against all odds, she seems to have survived the infection.
Kali contracted naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba that causes meningoencephalitis, a meningitis-like infection that causes serious brain inflammation, after swimming in the Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, Arkansas. And here I thought shark spottings were scary… Despite Willow Springs’ glowing Google reviews, a trip to their website shows the park as “under renovation,” and other articles note that the park is closed indefinitely, as Kali was the second child to contract the rare disease in its waters.
What I find particularly amazing is that the amoeba can survive in these waters, which the website claim are “pH balanced, chemically treated, chlorinated and routinely monitored by the health department.” That’s some pretty hearty amoeba.
After visiting the water park, Kali spiked a fever that nothing would bring down. Then she started throwing up and complaining of severe head pain. After doctors made the diagnosis, they medically induced a coma to keep her stable, and then administered a cocktail of antifungal drugs that had saved the only other two known survivors of the disease. They also cooled her down, which minimizes brain damage. On top of those conventional treatments, doctors also used an experimental breast cancer drug called miltefosine, which has been found to be capable of killing amoebas. A few days later, Kali’s system was free of the parasite.
Wow. That does not sound like a fun summer vacation.
The brain-eating amoeba, naegleria fowleri, is a single-celled microbe that lives in warm, fresh water; most infections in the U.S. occur during the summer and in the South. The parasite goes up the nose, destroys the olfactory bulbs, then travels through the olfactory nerves to the brain, where it starts eating brain cells. Here it is, folks — a zombie amoeba.
Thankfully, the parasite is rare — only 32 infections were reported in the U.S. between 2001-2010. At least two of these were attributed to people using tap water, rather than sterilized or distilled water, when attempting to clear their sinuses with neti pots.
The CDC suggests swimming with a nose clip, but I don’t find that suggestion particularly comforting. Though, if Kali ever goes swimming again, you can bet that’s what she’ll do. If I were her, I think I’d stick to riding bikes.