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SoCal Family Warns Of A Brain-Eating Amoeba That Killed 20-Year-Old

Koral Reef Pier and her husband (Photo via Facebook)
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The family of a young woman from Temecula Valley who was killed by a rare and deadly amoeba is trying to warn others about the strange infection. Sybil Meister lost her daughter, 20-year-old Koral Reef Pier, last October, KTLA reports. Pier was killed by balamuthia mandrillaris, a rare amoeba that can enter the body via open wounds or through the nose and mouth, then lives inside the body for up to two years before ultimately killing its host. Meister wants to raise awareness about the amoeba and encourage anyone who is experiencing symptoms of the infection to get it checked out right away. She's created a Facebook page, Team Koral Reef Amoeba Awareness, for this purpose.

Balamuthia is a different organism from Naegleria fowler, which killed a 9-year-old girl in Kansas and was found in a Louisiana water supply last summer. Naegleria fowler typically kills those infected much faster than balamuthia. According to the CDC, balamuthia can get into the human body via a wound or through the nose or mouth. It is typically found in dust, soil and occasionally water. It cannot be passed from person to person.

Meister believes that Pier came into contact with the amoeba while on a family trip to Lake Havasu in Arizona in 2013. Dr. Navaz Karanjia, who treated Pier, agrees that she likely contracted the amoeba in 2013, but disagrees that it came from Lake Havasu. "It's easy to sensationalize the story, but this particular amoeba has almost always been contracted through inhalation of dust. It's possible she got it through water, but it's highly unlikely," she told ABC.

Once contracted, the amoeba "just eats your brain," Meister told KTLA. "It eats your brain until there's nothing left."

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The scientific term for this is granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE). The amoeba moves to the brain after it's inside the body. Symptoms of GAE typically include headaches, stiffness in the neck, light sensitivity, vomiting, tiredness, fever, seizures and paralysis of the face or other body parts. This can go on for weeks, or even months. The CDC states that 95 percent of those infected die. Only seven people have recovered from GAE as of 2008, however, some suffered permanent brain damage.

Early diagnosis is key, as GAE may be treated with a cocktail of medications, which is why Meister wants to spread awareness. "It's been less than six months since my daughter died, and her family, friends and I want to raise awareness about these deadly amoebas," Meister told ABC.

Meister said that Pier largely ignored or hid her initial symptoms, and was falsely diagnosed with a withdrawal from birth control early in the infection. It was only after her family took her to the ER and a biopsy was performed that balamuthia was discovered, and Pier died only weeks later.

However, doctors are somewhat concerned that Meister's awareness campaign may prompt unnecessary fear. Before you start panicking, know that only 94 reported cases of balamuthia have been reported to the CDC since 1974, and Karanjia said there were only six cases last year. The chances of contracting balamuthia are extremely rare, and it is not contagious.

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