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Sumter mom cautions against high temps in freshwater after son’s sudden death in 2012

Tips on how to avoid infection by brain-eating amoeba

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 7/16/19

One Sumter mother has been without her son almost as long as he was alive but still hopes his memory will help prevent another family's tragedy.

Gingi and Walt Driggers hadn't heard of Naegleria fowleri before their 8-year-old son, Blake, …

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Sumter mom cautions against high temps in freshwater after son’s sudden death in 2012

Tips on how to avoid infection by brain-eating amoeba

Posted

One Sumter mother has been without her son almost as long as he was alive but still hopes his memory will help prevent another family's tragedy.

Gingi and Walt Driggers hadn't heard of Naegleria fowleri before their 8-year-old son, Blake, contracted a rare infection in 2012 from the brain-eating amoeba that thrives in warm freshwater. Now, Gingi Driggers wants to remind Sumterites that holding your nose when jumping into lakes and rivers can save your life.

Blake was jumping off a dock into Lake Marion on July 7, 2012, and got water up his nose. On Saturday, July 14, he started throwing up and running a fever. By noon Sunday, he couldn't talk or respond well in the hospital.

Because symptoms from primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which is the result of the amoeba being forced up a nose into the brain where it destroys brain tissue and causes the brain to swell, are similar to bacterial meningitis, the fatality rate is over 97% because it's usually too late by the time doctors can know the cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They do have medicine that can kill it now, but it has to be caught on time. The timing is what makes the difference. You won't know you contract it until a week later, so it's already doing so much damage," Gingi Driggers said.

By that Monday, her son was placed on life support. He died on Tuesday afternoon.

The CDC confirmed after an autopsy that Blake died from PAM.

The infection is rare. The amoeba is common in freshwater but only finds its way to the brain when stirred up from sediment in warm water. In the 10 years from 2009 to 2018, 34 infections were reported in the U.S., according to the CDC. Of those cases, 30 contracted the amoeba in recreational water, three after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, one from contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide. It can't be spread from one person to another, and it can't be contracted from swallowing contaminated water.

The CDC reports only four people of 145 known infected individuals in the U.S. from 1962 to 2018 have survived.

Hannah Collins, an 11-year-old, died in August 2016 after contracting it while swimming in the Edisto River in Charleston County.

A 5k was held in Blake's honor in June 2013. Alice Drive Elementary School dedicated a bench in his name. A group from Northside Memorial Baptist held a shaving cream fight at Tracy's Camp in Pinewood because he always wanted to have one.

"Most of the people who are from around here, they were here when it was going on, so they're familiar with it. It was a big scare when it happened to us," Driggers said. "It's been a while, and people tend to put their guard down and not really think about it. It's a good reminder to be cautious."

Driggers wants parents and anyone swimming in freshwater this summer to know the symptoms and know how important it is to get to a doctor as quick as possible.

"If you have the symptoms and you've been at the lake, get checked out," she said. "It mimics the stomach bug. That's what we thought it was in the beginning. It's 100% preventable if you hold or plug your nose."

How to prevent infection

- Hold your nose shut, use nose clips or keep your head above water

- Avoid putting your head under water in hot springs and other untreated geothermal waters

- Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperatures and low water levels

- Avoid digging in or stirring up sediment while participating in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater

Source: Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital