LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KARK) – A child in Little Rock recently died from an infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba, bringing back memories for many of a case from 10 years ago when another Arkansas child faced the same diagnosis but survived.
On Thursday, Arkansas health officials reported a death due to a person being infected by Naegleria fowleri at a splash pad at the Country Club of Little Rock. Nexstar’s KARK has determined the victim in the case was a young child.
Arkansan Kali Hardig contracted a similar case of Naegleria fowleri after swimming in a man-made pond ten years ago.
Naegleria fowleri cannot infect anyone who swallows it and cannot be spread from person to person, the Department of Health said. People primarily become infected when swimming in infected bodies of water where the amoeba can enter through the nose.
The infection caused by exposure to Naegleria fowleri is called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM. Symptoms of PAM include severe headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting which then escalates to stiff neck, seizures, and coma that can lead to death. The CDC reports that PAM is almost always fatal: the death rate is over 97%.
Out of the 157 known infections between 1962 and 2022, only four have survived. Among those is Hardig.
She complained of a pounding headache. After trying to sleep it off, the headache only worsened.
“My eyes were rolling back in my head, I wasn’t there anymore,” Hardig said.
Her parents rushed her to the hospital where doctors originally thought it was a bad case of the flu, but Hardig said after tests, the scary truth appeared in the lens of a microscope: Hardig had a Naegleria fowleri infection.
“A death sentence is what they called it, as soon as they saw those little amoebas in my fluid,” Hardig recounted to KARK.
“We went into the ER, I’m pretty sure it was a Friday, and they told my parents by Sunday I would be gone, because that’s how fast it moves, it was pretty scary,” Hardig recalled.
But Hardig fought every day, spending 22 days in a medically induced coma.
“They said I was like a brand-new baby, I had to relearn everything,” Hardig explained.
Hardig is now a mother and lives out of state. After making a near-full recovery, she now only feels the lasting effects of scar tissue in her left eye.
“It causes me to have some blurry vision every now and then, but that’s about the only long-lasting effect I have from it,” Hardig said.
When she was 12, she asked everyone to be careful while swimming and to also wear a nose plug. Today, she shares the same words with the world.
“People need to remember to wear their nose plugs or at least plug your nose when you’re in the water,” Hardig said.
She adds that she understands all too well the pain the family experiencing the effects of the often-deadly amoeba is going through. She said she plans to help in any way she can.
Naegleria fowleri can occur naturally in any freshwater body, like lakes, rivers, and hot springs, as well as in soil. The amebae have often been found in the sediment at the bottom of these bodies of water, according to the CDC.
While everyone should assume there is a risk when swimming in warm freshwater, most Naegleria fowleri infections have been reported in southern states like Florida and Texas.
The amebae can also be found in poorly maintained pools, splash pads, surf parks, or recreational venues, or those that lack enough chlorine.