The Florida teen fighting for his life after being infected with a rare brain-eating amoeba has already beaten the odds by surviving for a month.
The median time for survival with an infection with Naegleria fowleri, the scientific name for the amoeba, is just five days, and the disease it causes, primary amebic meningoencephalitis, is fatal 97 percent of the time, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“Only four people out of 154 known infected individuals in the United States from 1962 to 2021 have survived,” the agency says.
It’s believed Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, was infected with the amoeba when he went swimming July 1 at Port Charlotte Beach about 100 miles south of Tampa, Florida.
The amoeba is found worldwide but the CDC says it thrives in higher water temperatures and lower water levels. While still a rare infection, those are exactly the conditions found across the US this summer, with heat waves and droughts hitting many states.
It is found in warm fresh water, like lakes and rivers and hot springs, and can even show up in poorly maintained swimming pools. It cannot survive in salt water and cannot spread from one person to another.
Infections mainly occur in July, August and September, and while more likely in the South — Florida saw 36 cases between 1962 and 2021 and Texas 40 — some northern states have seen them, notably Minnesota, famous for its lakes, which has had two reported cases. No cases have been reported in New York or surrounding states in the Northeast.
Caleb has been taken off of blood pressure medication and other drugs and while still on a ventilator, his breathing is gaining strength, his aunt Katie Chiet posted on a GoFundMe page raising money for the teen’s treatment.
Initial samples of his spinal fluid sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control were negative for Naegleria fowleri, but doctors at Golisano Children’s Hospital in Fort Myers, where he is being treated said, that was the likely cause of his infection, according to local reports.
Caleb’s progress came as a second person, a Missouri resident who was infected after swimming at an Iowa lake, died from the bug earlier this month. Last year, at least two children in the US died from these infections, one in North Carolina and one in Texas.
A big challenge in amoeba cases is getting the right diagnosis – it can take weeks before the amoeba is identified, and that’s often too late for the victim who’s infected. But even then, there’s no specific treatment for the infection, according to the CDC.