PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (WFLA) — A Florida teenager is fighting for his life after he was infected with a rare, potentially deadly amoeba that targets the brain.
NBC affiliate WBBH reported Saturday that Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, got sick after his family took a trip to Port Charlotte Beach on July 1.
However, it would take a week before he showed symptoms like headaches and hallucinations, which landed him in the emergency room.
Doctors told Caleb’s parents that the amoeba Naegleria fowleri had entered the 13-year-old’s body through his nose and reached his brain.
“He’s just the kindest soul, but he’s so strong,” Caleb’s aunt, Elizabeth Ziegelbaur, told WBBH. “He’s so strong. Like the fighting on the outside, that’s what we’re doing. He is fighting his little heart out on the inside.”
As of Saturday, the boy is barely conscious as his body fights off the infection.
The CDC said that the amoeba is typically found in warm freshwater and soil. The Naegleria fowleri species is the only type of Naegleria amoeba that infects humans.
Experts said the amoeba cannot infect people who drink contaminated water — which enters through the nose when the tainted water enters the nasal cavities, typically through swimming.
The amoeba is not spread through person-to-person contact, but it is highly fatal for those who contract the pathogen, who develop a condition called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The CDC said the fatality rate is over 97%, with only four of the 154 confirmed cases from 1962 to 2021 surviving.
Victims of the amoeba die from the destruction of brain tissue and brain swelling. However, infection rates are very low, with the CDC saying there were only 10 cases from 2012 to 2021.
A case of Naegleria fowleri ended up killing a Missouri resident earlier this month. That case was the first confirmed infection in Missouri for 35 years.
The risk of infection can be minimized by keeping water out of the nose while swimming in freshwater. The amoeba can also grow in pipes, hot water heaters, and water systems so steps must be taken to ensure that the amoeba cannot thrive there.
In Caleb’s case, the end is not yet in sight.
“It’s very lonely and isolating to walk this path because we don’t know where we are on any kind of timeline,” said Katie Chiet, his other aunt, to WBBH. “It’s day 17 and Caleb is still breathing on his own. Are we in the clear? Are we on the path to healing? Are we waiting for something else to happen.”
While Caleb’s brain has seen continued inflammation, his family is trying to remain positive, especially since his youth could allow his brain to recover more easily if he survives.
“All we can do is hold onto hope because we know he’s going to fight through this. He will,” Ziegelbaur said.