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Arkansas girl battles brain-eating amoeba

By Jacque Wilson and Jen Christensen, CNN
July 29, 2013 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kali Hardig, 12, is in critical condition at Arkansas Children's Hospital
  • Amoeba causes fatal brain infection, according to the CDC
  • Parasite generally found in people who swim in warm, fresh water

(CNN) -- Doctors say there may be a glimmer of hope for a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas who is infected with a rare but deadly brain-eating parasite. Not a single person is known to have survived such an infection in the past decade, but Kali Hardig is hanging on in critical condition, according to doctors at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Hardig's mother took her to the hospital nine days ago. Hardig had a fever and a headache, but something else didn't seem right. Doctors checked her spinal fluid, and that's where they found a microscopic amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.

The amoeba enters the body through the nose and travels to the brain. It's usually found in people who have been swimming in warm, fresh water. You cannot be infected with the organism by drinking contaminated water, the CDC says.

"This infection is one of the most severe infections that we know of," Dr. Dirk Haselow of the Arkansas Department of Health told CNN affiliate WMC. "Ninety-nine percent of people who get it die."

Why 'nightmare bacteria' on the rise

Dr. Sanjiv Pasala, one of Hardig's attending physicians, says they immediately started treating Hardig with an anti-fungal medicine, antibiotics and a new experimental anti-amoeba drug doctors got directly from the CDC. They have also reduced the girl's temperature to 93 degrees. Doctors have used that technique in some brain injury cases as a way to preserve undamaged brain tissue.

Today, doctors checked the girl's cerebral spinal fluid and could not find any presence of the amoeba.

Pasala said that while other cases have not met with such favorable results, what may have made a real difference is that the girl's mother got her to the hospital so quickly.

Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock is the most likely source of Hardig's infection, according to a news release from the Arkansas Department of Health. Another case of the same parasite, also called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, was reported in 2010 and was possibly linked to Willow Springs.

"Based on the occurrence of two cases of this rare infection in association with the same body of water and the unique features of the park, the ADH has asked the owner of Willow Springs to voluntarily close the water park to ensure the health and safety of the public," the news release said.

What's in your pool water?

The first symptoms of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis appear one to seven days after infection, including headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck, according to the CDC.

"Later symptoms include confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations," the government agency's website states. "After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within one to 12 days."

Getting this amoeba is extremely rare. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 32 reported cases in the United States, the CDC says. Most of the cases occurred in the Southeast.

Here are some tips from the CDC to help lower your risk of infection:

• Avoid swimming in freshwater when the water temperature is high and the water level is low.

• Hold your nose shut or use nose clips.

• Avoid stirring up the sediment while wading in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

• If you are irrigating, flushing or rinsing your sinuses (for example, by using a neti pot), use water that has been distilled or sterilized.

Flesh-eating bacteria survivor goes home

Doctors say it is still too early to know whether Hardig can survive or to know how much of an impact the amoeba has had on the girl's brain.

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