12 Investigates: Brain-eating amoeba - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

12 Investigates: Brain-eating amoeba

Christian Strickland (Source: Family photo) Christian Strickland (Source: Family photo)
RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

Christian Strickland was his step-father's best friend and his mother's heart.

"I miss him a lot. He made me a better person," said Amber Strickland.

The cycle of life came to a painful and sudden stop at just 9-years-old for Christian.

"That's the hardest part, to imagine that I could be alive for 50 more years and never see his face," said Strickland.

He died one week after attending a fishing camp that took him on the James River.

Somehow a microscopic and naturally occurring amoeba, called Naeglaria Fowleri, was forced up his nose and burrowed in his brain. He reported a headache on a Sunday and could barely get out of bed by Monday.

"I pulled him out of bed and he just melted onto the floor," said Amber.

At the hospital he was diagnosed with Meningoencephalitis. His brain was swelling. Video Amber has kept guarded until now from Christian's time in the hospital shows what this amoeba did to her son. On the home video you can hear them talking.

Amber: "Christian look at me. Look at me!"

Christian: "I don't know where you are."

Amber: "You don't know who I am or where I am?"

Christian: "I see you."

"This is deadly, it's swift and not only that, the family that is standing there with every last ounce of hope they have, watching their child suffer until he dies," said Strickland while fighting back tears.

Within three days of arriving at the hospital Christian was gone.

"He said, 'I love you' and I said, 'I love you too.' At the time I didn't appreciate that. You know, I mean I was hurting so badly, that I didn't appreciate you know that I got those last words from him. But I cherish them now," said Strickland.

Lurking in warm bodies of fresh water like the James River or Lake Anna, Naegleari Fowleri is almost always fatal. There's no cure, it's hard to diagnose, and it's extremely rare.

"We think this is really related to water temperature. So you see it in the Southern-tier states at the bottom of the US," said Dr. Michael Beach with the Centers for Disease Control.

Last year there were 4 deaths. Along with Christian, a 16-year-old died a week after swimming in a Florida river. Two adults in Louisiana died after using neti pots filled with Louisiana tap water.

Naegleria folweri has taken more than 120 lives since it was first discovered in the 1960s and yet little is known about the free living amoebas. It thrives in warm stagnant waters and soil, usually popping up in the summer months

"It is a great mystery. We don't really understand why the very few people who are exposed and develop this illness. Why that happens," said Dr. Vincent Hill with the CDC. "We're trying to understand it better."

Last August, the Center's for Disease Control announced it was attempting to develop a test for quickly detecting the amoebas. The agency said it would ask Virginia for samples from several waterways, but so far that sampling has not been done.

A year later the CDC is still perfecting the test. "It's really trying to study the environment to see if we can improve our understanding of this organism. To say whether we can even make any better public health recommendations," said Hill.

Amber Strickland wants waters tested nationwide and signs put up if Naegleri is present so people can make their own decisions.

"It doesn't take much to protect your children. You know it really doesn't. a nose plug," said Strickland.

She carries Christian's story on her back. Like most parents, before last summer she'd never heard of Naeglaria.

Swallowing this amoeba does not hurt you, it's only when it's forced up the nose and again, infections are extremely rare.

One of the world's leading experts on this amoeba is a VCU professor who's studied it for the past 30 years.

Copyright 2012 WWBT NBC12.  All rights reserved.

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