Lily Mae Avant, 10, lays unresponsive in a hospital bed in the ICU of Cooks Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth.
Doctors and the CDC say they haven’t figured out exactly where Lily contracted the amoeba — whether it was when she swam in the Brazos River near her house in Laguna Park or when she swam in Lake Whitney on Labor Day.
Lily’s aunt Crystal Warren said the family is trying to understand why this happened to Lily when so many others were also in the water.
“For this to happen to her when there were so many other people in the same waters on the same days, we just don’t understand why it was her,” Warren told KWTX.
The name of the amoeba is naegleria fowleri.
N. fowleri dwells in warm bodies of fresh water where it dines on bacteria in the sediment. As such, most infections with this amoeba in the U.S. have occurred in southern states, especially Texas and Florida, during the summer. When the sediment of a lake is disrupted, amoeba get stirred into the water. Swimmers can then inhale the parasite through their nose. From there, N. fowleri invades the olfactory nerves and migrates to the brain, where it causes a dangerous condition called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis.
While swimming in fresh water is the most likely source of this amoeba, this same organism and other species of amoeba can cause brain infections in people who use tap water instead of sterile water or saline when using the nasal-flushing Neti pot.
The brain is moist and warm, just like the lakes and hot springs where the amoeba thrives. But the brain doesn’t have bacteria for the amoeba to eat, so the organism attacks brain cells for nutrients.
The immune system does not sit idly by, however, while the parasite eats its way through the brain. It unleashes a massive swarm of immune cells to the infected zone, which causes inflammation and brain swelling. Unfortunately for the person whose brain is infected, this battle is being waged inside a sturdy skull, which cannot expand to accommodate a swelling brain. The increase in cranial pressure disrupts the brain’s connection to the spinal cord, compromising communication with other parts of the body like the respiratory system.