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California woman dies from brain-eating amoeba

A close up photograph of Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that is known to attack the central nervous system.

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Last Updated Jul 3, 2015 8:32 AM EDT

BISHOP, Calif. - Officials say a young woman from Central California has died from a brain-eating amoeba infection.

CBS Sacramento reports the 21-year-old victim was from the town of Bishop in Inyo County. County public health officials say she woke up from a nap on June 16 with a headache and was soon vomiting. When the symptoms wouldn't go away after a day, she was taken to the ER at Northern Inyo Hospital.

Doctors first diagnosed her with meningitis, but her condition continued to deteriorate. She was then flown to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, where she died.

Tests done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found evidence that the woman was infected by Naegleria fowleri, known commonly as the brain-eating amoeba, CBS Sacramento reported.

Officials believe the woman caught the amoeba on private property, but wouldn't elaborate on exactly how she was infected. However, the amoeba usually infects people who swim in warm freshwater lakes and rivers, or in poorly-maintained pools.

In a statement provided to CBS News, county health officials said they believe the area where the woman was infected was accessible only to family and friends and does not pose a risk to the general public.

Only 133 cases of the infection have been reported over the past 53 years, according to the CDC, and only three people are known to have survived. Seven documented cases of the infection have taken place in California.

Naegleria fowleri infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. The amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain where it causes the disease primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a brain infection that destroys brain tissue.

Symptoms of the disease start to occur roughly 5 days after infection and may include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting. Once symptoms begin, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within five days.