ANDERSON, S.C. -- The freshwater amoeba Naegleria fowleri killed an eight-year-old Sumter County boy last recently, but an infectious disease doctor says the case is one in a million.
The single-cell organism commonly lives in large and small free-standing bodies of water, especially shallow water found in low-level yard ponds, catfish farms and lakes, and is active in summer. But officials say South Carolina's lakes are safe for swimming -- that they cannot recall any deaths involving the amoeba in this region's water.
Jim Beasley, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said virtually every standing body of water in the state contains the organism, but it is threatening only when ingested up the nose. "This boy's case is tragic," Beasley said. "We want folks to understand, yes, we will find it if we go looking for it. But even if you swallow that amoeba, it won't have that kind of impact on you."
Third-grader Blake Driggers, 8, of Sumter died on July 17, and an autopsy found that Naegleria caused his death.
Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock said he has never encountered a death caused by the amoeba. "I've seen several cases of meningitis, but I've never seen anything like this before," he said.
The transmission of the organism is unique in that freshwater swimmers can splash it on their skin or even drink it without effect. But inhaling it poses the most danger. "It can kind of swim up your nose and the roof of your mouth through perforations that allow nerves to pass from the lining of your mouth and nose to brain," said Dr. Michael Kilby, chief of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
"We tend to think of amoebas as bugs in the tropics that give you diarrhea, but this is a different amoeba from exposure to water," he said.
Kilby is not associated with Blake Driggers' case, and said he cannot remember treating a case involving the organism. There have been cases reported in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Australia in recent years, he said.
"The last thing we want to do is cause alarm and cause people not to swim because it's one in a million," Kilby said. "When you're squashing around in the creek and you get it on your skin then it doesn't matter; it's just when it gets in the wrong place."
Catching Naegleria fowleri in time is the key because once the amoeba reaches the brain the chance of survival is less than 5 percent. Death occurs usually between one and 10 days, Beasley said. The organism is capable of causing headaches, vomiting, seizures and death if it reaches the brain. But the frequency of such infections is so low, it is hard to determine what causes the organism to settle in and how fast it attacks, Kilby said.
Clemson University freshwater ecologist John Hains said the organism's fatal change once ingested up the nose is mysterious.
"We don't really fully understand what causes it to go into pathogenic mode," he said. "It's really completely unpredictable."
(Contact Jennifer Crossley Howard at www.independentmail.com Independent Mail reporter Anna Mitchell also contributed to this story.)