Rare recovery: Florida teen survives brain-eating amoeba

August 24, 2016  19:46

Sebastian DeLeon, 16, has survived a rare brain-eating amoeba, doctors at Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando said Tuesday.

"He's done tremendously well. He's walking, he's speaking, he went outside for the first time to get some fresh air -- he's ready to go home," Dr. Humberto Antonio Liriano, a critical care physician, told reporters.

It's remarkable because he is only the fourth person in the United States to survive an infection from this parasite, called Naegleria fowleri.

On vacation with his family in Orlando, DeLeon had a severe headache while they were at a theme park on August 7. The pain became so bad, Liriano explained, the teen "couldn't tolerate people touching him."

A search for local hospitals ensued and they fortuitously discovered Florida Hospital for Children, where they brought the teen. Later, they learned doctors there were uniquely knowledgeable about this amoeba -- they'd attended special seminars on the topic earlier this year.

When DeLeon arrived at the hospital, Dr. Dennis Hernandez, the ER doctor working at the time, immediately identified symptoms of meningitis and took a sample of the teen's cerebral spinal fluid. The samples were positive for the brain-eating amoeba.

Three other people are known to have been infected with primary amebic meningoencephalitis, the infection caused by the amoeba, this year. DeLeon is the only one who has survived.

The brain-eating amoeba cannot infect you if you drink contaminated water, explained Dr. Rajan Wadhawan, chief medical officer at Florida Hospital for Children. The parasite becomes a danger "only when it goes up the nose forcibly," Wadhawan said. Most patients survive only 12 to 13 days.

The Florida Department of Health said DeLeon was infected earlier this month while swimming on private property in Broward County.

Hearing DeLeon's test results, the entire hospital worked together, Liriano recounted. Calls were placed to Profounda Inc., the Orlando-based drug company that makes an anti-parasitic called miltefosine (sold as Impavido), that was FDA approved in March for another use. Within 12 minutes, the drug was delivered to the hospital.

Liriano and a team of pediatric infectious disease doctors, with assistance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, worked together with one goal in mind: to save his life. They placed the teen on a breathing tube and in a drug-induced coma. They administered miltesfosine and other antimicrobials and ran tests daily to check for the amoeba in hopes of getting a negative result.

That came 72 hours after treatment began, indicating the amoeba was gone. "We decided to take the breathing tube out and within hours, he spoke," said Liriano, who began to cry as he decribed his patient's recovery. He said he has been doing "tremendously well."

DeLeon will need rehab, but is ready to return home to South Florida with his family.

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