Brain eater: After boy's death, aunt urges safer swimming

For decades, brain-eating organisms were the stuff of legends– or of legendarily hot places like Texas, Arizona, and Florida. But the killer amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri really did invade and consume a boy's brain right here in Virginia. It happened last summer, and Bonnie Strickland knows all too well.

A lifetime resident of the Henrico County community of Glen Allen, Strickland lost her 9-year-old nephew in August in a case that sent shudders through the Commonwealth. She says it happened several days after the boy finished a week-long fishing camp.

"He went out for ice cream with his grandmother and my sister-in-law that Sunday night," recalls Strickland. "He complained of a slight headache."

The next morning, his mother tried to revive the listless boy with a bath, but he went silent when his mom asked him to climb into the tub and seemed confused when she asked him to get dressed.

"None of it was registering with him," recalls Strickland. "He went from healthy and active to not even recognizing any of us in a day. "

When she rushed over to an intensive-care-unit, Strickland says she'd never heard of the single-celled organism that feeds on cerebral fluid and gray matter. As medical personnel and family members pleaded for the boy to speak, the most coherent thing he could do was recite his ABCs.

"He was brain-dead a couple of days later," says Strickland.

On Friday, August 5, Christian Alexander Strickland was taken off life support. Now his aunt wants others to know what scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been saying: that the single-celled organism is ubiquitous in soil and fresh water– but that swimmers can use a finger-pinch, nose plugs, or face-covering goggles to keep it out.

"The CDC says it's in every type of water body in Virginia," says Strickland. "It's in all of them– deep water and shallow water."

Research indicates that in the hot days of late summer, when water temperatures exceed 80 degrees, N. fowleri emerge from the cysts in which they have been harmlessly hibernating. Ironically, even in their potentially-fatal stages, the amoeba can be safely swum among– and even ingested. The trouble starts when contaminated water is forced into the sinus cavity, something that has reportedly turned fatal for several young southern water-skiers and wake-boarders– and to one little boy who just loved fishing.

As family members pieced together the final days of Christian Strickland, they were told that he'd been dunked while horse-playing with other kids at the fishing camp. In the wake of his death, the Virginia Department of Health reportedly asked the camp owner not to reveal which waterways campers had visited. While such silence may provoke outrage from worried parents, it makes sense to Rebecca LePrell, the Department's director of environmental epidemiology.

"We certainly want parents and children to enjoy swimming in the James River and other fresh bodies of water in Virginia," says LaPrell, noting that labeling one water body as dangerous might mislead the public.

"Environmental factors play a big role," says LePrell, noting that like the fresh waters they inhabit, populations of N. fowleri tend to ebb and flow. "Water quality conditions can change on a daily basis, and the growth of the organism is tied to the changing water conditions."

The year 2007 was a sort of shark-summer for N. Fowleri because there were six confirmed American deaths, about double the average. That was the year that Virginia's health commissioner issued a warning that prompted the Lake Anna Civic Association to plunk down $10,000 to invite a team of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers for water testing. What the VCU team found might be called chilling– except that chilling would be the wrong word for a nuclear reactor-heated lake.

"Thermal enrichment of water can cause proliferation of amebae especially at temperatures of 86°F to 111°F," wrote the researchers. Their tests confirmed N. Fowleri in 9 of 16 Lake Anna sample sites and took heed of what the Civic Association had warned: that 99 percent of the water between the power plant and the dam gets recirculated by the the cooling pumps of the North Anna power plant.

"Amebae that are present in one location today," the researchers warned, "may be at another location tomorrow."

While Lake Anna's hot spots may serve as an unnaturally warm breeding ground, such N. fowleri-friendly pockets can occur naturally– when water stagnates, runs shallow, or churns up soil from the bed of the waterway, according to the Health Deparment's LePrell, who downplays the benefits of testing.

"We have to assume," she says, "there's always a low risk of infection."

If the risk is low, the fatality rate is high. Of the 100+ American cases recorded since the mid-1960s, only one person survived (a girl reportedly diagnosed quickly and bombarded with drugs in 1978). In the 10-year span from 2001 to 2010, all 35 Americans confirmed with N. fowleri– including a pair of adult Louisiana neti-pot users– died. But some say there could be many more victims.

An early 1970s Medical College of Virginia review of over 16,000 supposed meningitis deaths found five previously undisclosed cases. But it's not just southern waters. There's are two grieving families in Minnesota.

Far north of the usual hot spots, the family of the late Hailee LaMeyer didn't order an autopsy for their 11-year-old daughter who died after a July 4, 2008 swim in a shallow pond. A nurse, Hailee's mother has since gone public with her blame of N. fowleri.

"Never in our lives could we imagine that such an innocent young girl, doing something so innocent as swimming in the lake, would be infected by this monster amoeba and die just days later," Heidi LaMeyer wrote for Minnesota Public Radio.

Most of the victims are little kids, like 7-year-old Kyle Lewis of Texas. Kyle's father, Jeremy Lewis, recalls the August morning in 2010 when, after his son's two headache-ridden nights in a hospital, the attending doctor said the boy was probably just suffering from viral meningitis that would run its course without permanent harm. As the family began making plans to leave the hospital, Lewis showed the doctor a text message from his mother-in-law asking if anyone had considered N. fowleri.

"The doctor said, 'Mr. Lewis, if your son had Naegleria fowleri, he'd already be dead."

Less than 24 hours later, Kyle Lewis was dead. Mr. Lewis says that the fact that only four days typically elapse between the onset of flu-like symptoms and irreversible brain damage spurred him to create the KyleCares Foundation to spread awareness.

In Henrico, Bonnie Strickland recently joined friends and family at the dedication of new playground equipment and a memorial tree at Glen Allen Elementary School, where Christian would have been a third-grader this year. Strickland, who speaks out to educate parents, notes that her nephew's killer amoeba might never have been revealed but for the boy's open-minded doctor.

"It's brushed aside as rare," says Strickland. "But it doesn't feel rare to me."

17 comments

Thank you for the great awareness article and we hope the information helps parents understand this is a real risk that is easily prevented.

The link to the Kyle Lewis Amoeba Awareness Foundation is www.KyleCares.com

Swim Safe and Spread the Awareness

Thanks for the link which I had sorta messed up in the story but fixed now.--hawes spencer

Thanks to everyone that have put so much effort into making sure we are all aware and helping us to protect our families from this terrible amoeba.

"We certainly want parents and children to enjoy swimming in the James River and other fresh bodies of water in Virginia," says LaPrell, noting that labeling one water body as dangerous might mislead the public."

Disagree with this statement. As somebody who once caught some bug when I was a toddler after my mom brought me swimming in a pond up in Massachusetts I just totally disagree with this statement. Swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, and "fresh water bodies" is basically gross. Bezillions of organisms going on in there, never mind the snakes and bugs and everything else. Just ask that poor girl who's been in the news fighting flesh eating bacteria, caught after "fresh water" from a lake or whatever in Florida got into a cut on her leg. There's just all kinds of who knows what going on in freshwater bodies. Best to stick to swimming pools and water parks if you want a good time in the water.

My condolences to the family. This is a total tragedy. :(

Boooo! IF I am not mistaken this amoeba is present even in tap water. Please visit this link ->http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/12/19/143960631/second-neti-pot-death-from-amoeba-prompts-tap-water-warning.

Booo This is my family member and if it happens to u u will know how we feel! So keep your Booo to yourself! We r not saying to stop swimming! Take precautions! And thinly before u make a statement like u did! Lives r being lost and our government is no doing enough!

Sorry boo my son read this to me wrong. Sorry again!

When I was a boy, only 40 years ago, the waters of central virginia did not stink and many species of fish were to be caught. Today the local rivers and lakes are but cesspools.

Pretty sad the way obscure pathogens kill this way and are not diagnosed in time.
Hanta Virus is another, as is what's called "valley fever" in the arid west.

Spreading awareness is one thing. Government acting up is another.
Actions need to be taken by the government.

I feel for this family; I am so sorry for your loss. However, this is a very rare and isolated case. It is tragic for you and your loved one, but it is not a national emergency that requires massive action by government officials, nor is it an Epidemic. You're engaging in sensationalism and fear mongering. Millions of people swim, canoe and raft in fresh water lakes and rivers yearly in this country and are in more danger of being bitten by a water moccasin or drowning than of being invaded by a parasite.

I do NOT want the Government to be any more involved than they already are in my life and that of FREE American citizens--who are already plagued by a nanny state that forces every safety measure known to man and alien and even want to dictate what we eat. Your grief is understandable; however, I intend on taking a deep breath and hope that other, reasonable Virginians will as well

"Brain Eater"? Classy.

Nivasi..I'm torn between losing my nephew to this amoeba and trying to keep the other kids in my life safe. My family has grown up in Va's waters doing all kinds of water sports.I don't want the kids in our family to not experience this or be afraid of the water. I just want them to be safe and have more knowledge then what we had before Christian's passing. It might not be as rare as once thought. MY belief is all the meningitis cases you read about has not all been properly diagnosed. Christian was 1st diagnosed as having meningitis/encephalitis. However, Christian's Dr worked nonstop to find the underlying issue which was Naegleria fowleri. Had he not worked so hard to find what was killing Christian we would have never known anything more than meningitis. No one is asking for the government to come in and take away anything from us but I think WE all deserve to be warned about the dangers of what is living in our lakes and rivers. Had I known how horrible this amoeba is and that only a pair of nose clips would have prevented it then Christian would still be with me right now.

don't get it. what's wrong with identifying the body of water? Is the State covering up something? Was it Lake Anna (the Dominion/Vepco Nuclear dump) or the James River which has AREVA (the French company nuclear) upstream near Lynchburg? The State government and the Health Department need to catch up with the times-their duty is to protect the Health,Safety and Welfare of its citizens, not some big corporation that has $$$.

What could the government possibly do to prevent these issues? Make a law that it is illegal to swim in the water? The studies showed that the organisms are in about 99% of the water.

The chances of dying from something like this is probably less than being struck by lightning. Do you want the government to make a law that we can't go outside in a rainstorm.

The truth is we are all going to die from something. Crazy things happen, accidents, illness, enjoy life to the fullest and do what you enjoy. I personally love being in and around the water and if I was to die while doing something associated with that, well at least I went out doing something that I enjoyed.

@ common sense...having infomation and knowing what you are doing by entering any body of water , especially public waters, might make sense to some. If you have a death wish and want to find infected waters , fine. But don't try to impose that on innocent young children who need protection from this type thing happening again.