Teen Is the 4th Person to Survive Brain-Eating Amoeba in 50 Years

Doctors cooled the teen's body temperature to 33 degrees to save him.

ByABC News
August 23, 2016, 1:05 PM

— -- A Florida teen has become only the fourth person in the last 50 years to survive an infection by Naegleria fowleri, commonly known as the brain-eating amoeba.

Sebastian DeLeon, 16, continues his recovery after contracting the infection earlier this month.

He was taken to Florida Children's Hospital in Orlando, Florida, with a severe headache on Aug. 7. Doctors believe the teen, a camp counselor, was exposed to the amoeba at a freshwater lake a few days earlier.

Immediately after DeLeon arrived in the emergency room, doctors suspected a serious infection, especially since he had early signs of meningitis. Tests of his spinal fluid found evidence of the amoeba. Naegleria fowleri infection is fatal in 97 percent of cases.

"He presented on Friday and had a worsening headache on Saturday," Dr. Humberto Liriano, who treated DeLeon, told reporters today. "The boy was hospitalized on Sunday, 30 hours after first developing a headache."

Doctors took quick action to save him, lowering his body temperature and inducing a coma.

Doctors at Florida Children's Hospital were able to get quick access to miltefosine, a medication being investigated by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that has shown some promise in killing the amoeba. Since the drug may not work quickly enough to stop the damage from the amoeba, the doctors made the decision to put DeLeon in a coma and lower his body temperature to just 33 degrees in order to keep the amoebas still.

"The amoeba loves warm water, and you cool it, and the amoeba becomes a cyst," Liriano explained.

The amoeba is naturally occurring in freshwater lakes and ponds. Infection can result when it travels up the nasal passage to the brain.

DeLeon remained in the induced coma for days with medical staff monitoring his vital signs.

"We watched and waited for Sebastian while he was in the coma," Liraino said.

A few days later, doctors woke him up and removed his breathing tube. According to Liraino, DeLeon was speaking hours later.

"He's walking, talking. It's a miracle," said Liraino.

DeLeon's mother thanked the "wonderful team" at the hospital that treated her son.

"God has given us a miracle for having our son back and having him full of life," she said. "We are so thankful for the gift of life."