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Girl, 10, tragically died after contracting rare 'brain-eating' infection from water


A family has spoken of their heartbreak after a 10-year-old girl was tragically killed by a “brain-eating” infection.

Beloved Stefania Villamizar, from Colombia, first started to complain of ear pain a couple of days into a holiday with her mum to Santa Marta.

This then developed into episodes of vomiting and a fever, which were attributed to an ear infection.

But when they returned home to the city of Bucaramanga, her symptoms continued.

Things took a turn for the worse on July 4, when Stefania started acting strangely.

She did not want to get out of bed, the light bothered her and she called the maid to accompany her to take a shower – something which the usually “shy” girl would not do, according to her mother Tatiana González.

Then, when standing in the bathroom, Stefania began to convulse.

After being taken to hospital she remained under medical observation and underwent various procedures.

It was clear that it was not an ear infection, but the specialists did not know what was going on.

At first they claimed that Stefania was epileptic, but then they diagnosed her with bacterial meningitis.

Sadly, 24 days later, Stefania died in the hospital surrounded by her family.

Two days before her death, she was declared brain dead.

Despite the hospital’s claims the cause of death was meningitis, the case was so bizarre that it escalated to national authorities and the National Institute of Health intervened in the diagnosis.

A month after the death specialists determined that the girl died of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PAM is a brain infection caused by an amoeba called naegleria fowleri.

Known as the “brain-eating amoeba” it lives in soil and warm fresh water, such as lakes, rivers, pools and hot tubs.

Speaking to Semana, neuroscientist William Contreras – who took part in the research – explained: “It is a parasite that, due to high temperatures and stagnant water, can live in areas such as swimming pools or hot tubs and feeds on the brain.

“Symptoms begin with mild fever and general malaise and sometimes rhinitis; it occurs mainly in healthy individuals.”

As reported by Semana, Stefania has gone swimming in the hotel pool while in Santa Marta.

It is thought that during the immersion, the girl contracted the parasite through her nose and subsequently triggered the symptoms.

However, the National Institute of Health clarified that the child entered multiple water sources, so it is inappropriate to determine the exact site of infection.

The loss of Stefania has been mourned by her family including her grandparents.

Her grandfather, Álvaro, told Semana: “My wife has not been able to understand her absence.

“We pass by a shop or a place and she relates everything to our granddaughter, she says: ‘Stefania would have liked this dress’.”

Álvaro, 70, said Stefania was a most loving girl, who loved tennis and ballet and dreamed of being a gymnast.

He added: “May her death serve so that the Ministry of Health and the government take sanitary and preventive measures in all places where there are swimming pools, rivers or freshwater spaces, where this amoeba develops, and that the country’s doctors be ready to deal with these types of cases.”

“We tell our case so that other children and families do not suffer what we do. We are destroyed, devastated.”

The CDC explains that you cannot get PAM from drinking water contaminated with naegleria fowleri.

“You can only be infected when contaminated water goes up into your nose,” it says.

It is an extremely rare infection that only affects around three people in the US every year.

However, it is usually always fatal. Symptoms typically start one to 12 days after exposure to the water.

The early-stage symptoms include:

  • Severe frontal headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting.

This can then progress to:

  • A stiff neck
  • Seizures
  • Altered mental status
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma.
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