Two 12-year-olds afflicted with primary amebic meningoencephaltis (PAM) are improving after being treated with a German breast cancer drug not yet approved by the FDA.
Kali Hardig became infected after spending the day at a water park fed by lake water in Little Rock, AR; Zachary Reyna became ill after knee boarding in stagnant water.
The brain-feeding ameoba that causes PAM is N. Naegleria fowleri — it thrives in the sediment of shallow, warm lake water and in hot springs, and enters the body through the nose. According to the CDC, drinking water tainted with the ameoba will not cause the illness, which survives by feeding on the human brain. If the ameoba is ingested, it’s killed by stomach acid.
In the last fifty years, Kali is only the third survivor of PAM in North America — it looks like Zachary will become number four.
Why the Increase?
There have been only 132 documented cases of PAM since the early sixties, yet two kids from different parts of the country were diagnosed within three weeks of one another – there could be a couple of explanations for this.
First of all, the ameoba is migrating north due to global warming. In an interview with Kate Drummond of The Verge, Travis Heggie, associate professor of Bowling Green State University says we can expect the amoeba to pop up further and further north. And, if Kali Hardig is an indicator, he’s right. Most documented PAM cases have been in the Southeast.
Another reason for the increase in diagnoses is because PAM presents as other types of meningitis – – in the majority of cases, PAM is diagnosed at autopsy. This means it’s quite possible it’s been misdiagnosed in a number of cases.
The CDC states that the best defense against PAM is to avoid swimming in warm, shallow water; it takes little more than a drop of water to become infected.