By Jackie Wincheser, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press
LaBELLE, Fla. - School begins Monday in this rural Florida town about 30 miles east of Fort Myers, but one seventh-grader won't be in class.
Instead, Zachary Reyna, 12, continues to battle for his life in a Miami hospital nearly two weeks after contracting an infection that is destroying his brain.
"We are still in the storm, and it seems to be getting worse," Zachary's family wrote late Thursday on a Facebook page, Pray4Number4, that relatives have set up to post updates on his condition. Thousands more people than live in LaBelle, which has about 4,700 residents, are following the preteen's progress on the page.
Zachary had been knee boarding, a sport similar to water skiing, in a freshwater channel near his home with two friends, who did not get sick. The Florida Department of Health issued a warning earlier this week, after his diagnosis, for swimmers and those participating in water sports to be aware of the dangers of an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which thrives in warm, fresh water and enters the body through the nose, traveling to the brain.
"In Florida, the months of July, August and September are the warmest, so any standing fresh water is going to be warm and have the potential to host Naegleria fowleri," said Diane Holm, a Florida Department of Health spokeswoman.
Zachary's parasitic infection is known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. Of the 128 people who have been infected across the USA since 1962, only one has survived, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kali Hardig, 12, of Benton, Ark., contracted the brain-eating amoeba July 19, about two weeks before Zachary. Her condition is now stable and she is responding to treatment though CDC officials have not yet counted her as a survivor.
Zachary's parents have been keeping vigil at his bedside in the intensive care unit at Miami Children's Hospital. His friends and residents of LaBelle have been organizing prayer vigils and fund-raisers.
"He's a really great kid," said Ken Pickles, assistant principal at LaBelle Middle School where Zachary would attend. "He comes from a good family. Everyone is coming together for them." The community has three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, so most children here grow up with each other.
Pickles said one of the pluses of a small town is that everyone gets behind those who need help.
A prayer vigil Wednesday filled Memorial Park near the historic Hendry County Courthouse. Pickles said three cowboy hats were stuffed with more than $3,000 in donations for the family.
When school resumes Monday, guidance counselors will be ready to help any students that need to talk about Zachary, the assistant principal said.
Tyson Frantz, who coaches Zachary in basketball, called him the perfect student.
"He's very polite, very bright, and a really good shooter," Frantz said. Zachary, a guard, was one of two sixth-graders selected for last year's team.
His sixth-grade science teacher, Jennalee Edwards, said Zachary is a leader among students.
"I hope he pulls through this," she said. "He has a big heart."
Holm stresses that the infection is rare and she advises parents to teach their children effective ways of keeping water from entering the nose, such as using a nose clip or holding the head above water.
From 2003 to 2012, 31 U.S. infections were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those, 28 people were infected by contaminated recreational water, and three people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water.
"Millions of people enjoy fresh recreational water every year without contracting this infection," Holm said. "It is a highly unusual infection, and most people can expect to continue enjoying recreational fresh water with a minimal risk of infection throughout a normal lifespan."
Water safety tips
Naegleria fowleri, the organism that causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a brain-eating amoeba, is contracted through the nose during activities such as diving, swimming underwater and head dunking in contaminated water. Rather than keep children out of fresh recreational water, it is best to teach them how to limit the water going up their nose:
• Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater.
• Avoid putting your head under water in hot springs and other untreated thermal waters.
• Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
• Avoid digging in, or stirring up, sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.
Source: Florida Department of Health in Lee County