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Mourning father warning parents about amoeba dangers in waters

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Liza Hollingsworth died in July 2010 after contracting the so-called "brain-eating" amoeba. (Source: Live 5) Liza Hollingsworth died in July 2010 after contracting the so-called "brain-eating" amoeba. (Source: Live 5)

Parents are urging families to take steps to prevent deaths related to the so-called brain-eating amoeba, two of which have happened in recent weeks.

Dunn Hollingsworth lost his daughter, Liza, in July 2010. It came with no warning.

“It didn't appear as it began any different than any sort of childhood illness, I got a headache and my head hurts and my tummy hurts,” Hollingsworth said about his daughter’s illness. “Liza starting feeling bad at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, and she died Monday night.”

She was lost to a brain infection caused by Naegleria Fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in the soil, and warm, fresh water.

“She was at a birthday party with ten other little girls celebrating their tenth birthday and got in a local pond in Mount Pleasant, and contracted it there,” Hollingsworth said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, these Infections happen when contaminated water enters the nose, and the amoeba  travels to the brain. Cases are considered rare: only 37 were reported over a ten year period from 2006 to 2015.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Ludwig Lettau of Trident Medical Center has never seen one.

“Activities like diving and water up your nose seem to have a higher risk," Lettau said.

While the disease is not common, the organism is.

“It’s hot fresh water that isn't treated and if you happen to be in the exact wrong place at the wrong time, it’s going to be a problem,” Hollingsworth said.

A fatal problem for many children featured on the amoeba awareness website, KyleCares.com. In a slideshow on the website, the children, all lost to the amoeba, appear smiling, often in the very water that may have claimed their lives.

“It tends to be younger children because they’re the ones splashing about and making a bunch of ruckus in the water, and also tend to be in shallow water because that’s when you’re walking around stirring up the mud on the bottom of the pond or lake,” Hollingsworth said.

But those lost are not exclusively the very young. 

Lauren Seitz, 18, and Hudson Adams, 19, both died this summer, their deaths blamed on the amoeba.

“It’s important that doctors be made aware of that this is out there,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s important that parents be made aware that this is out there.” 

He said it is found in lakes, ponds, rivers, improperly chlorinated water and hot springs, especially in warm, shallow water. While infection is rare, some wonder if that could change. 

“If you think about global warming, this is an organism that thrives, the hotter the better, and with the hotter surface waters, there may be more of these,” Lettau said.

“The likelihood of death if you are one of these is 99 percent,” Hollingsworth said.

Amoeba awareness websites promote prevention, including the use of nose plugs and knowing where to safely swim.

”Pools that are appropriately chlorinated and taken care of, as don’t have debris that the chlorine can work well, those are safe, and the ocean is safe,” Lettau said.

If your family does play in warm, fresh water, know the symptoms. A new treatment may save a life. 

“When I first trained in infectious diseases, this was thought to be 100 percent fatal but early treatment with these new drugs could make the difference,” Lettau said.

None of the three major hospitals in the Charleston area carries the new medication that treats the amoeba infection. The medication is available through the CDC in Atlanta, but the parents of children who died of the infection say timing in critical. 

The drug is being donated to a Columbia hospital soon, however, at the urging of the family of 8-year old Blake Driggers, who lost his life in July of 2012 after a family outing on Lake Marion.  They want treatment available in the event another child comes into contact with the amoeba.

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