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Mom raises awareness of brain-eating amoeba that killed Calif. newlywed

A California mom is seeking to raise awareness of the lethal brain-eating amoeba that killed her newlywed daughter last fall.

A Facebook page set up in the young woman's memory tells the story: Koral Reef Meister Pier was just 20 years old when she started developing mysterious symptoms in 2013. Described as "bubbly, energetic... healthy and athletic," she had married her high school sweetheart and was planning to attend culinary school. By last summer, she was increasingly troubled by headaches, nausea, neck pain and fatigue. Her vision started to get blurry and she grew increasingly weak.

It finally got so bad that in late September she went to the emergency room at Temecula Valley Hospital, near her home in Southern California, where an MRI turned up evidence of lesions in her brain. She was transferred to another hospital's intensive care unit for specialized neurological treatment, but her condition took a turn for the worse. By early October she was suffering from numbness, loss of mobility, headaches, rapid heart rate, vomiting and memory loss, and surgeons had to remove a piece of her skull to relieve the pressure on her swollen brain.

Only then did they diagnose what was causing these devastating symptoms: an amoeba known as Balamuthia mandrillaris, which can be found naturally in the soil and possibly the water in warm climates such as the southwestern United States.

Koral's mother, Sybil Meister, told the Press-Enterprise newspaper she believes her daughter most likely contracted the infection during a family trip to Lake Havasu, in Arizona, in May 2013. In another case in 2007, Lake Havasu was believed to be the source of a rare infection with a different brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, which killed a 14-year-old boy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the Balamuthia mandrillaris amoeba, a single-celled organism, can cause serious infections of the brain and spinal column when it enters the body through a cut or by inhaling or swallowing it. The illness is very rare; only 70 cases have been reported in the U.S. since the amoeba was first identified in 1993.

As in Koral's case, symptoms typically start out mild but become more severe over several weeks or months. That makes it especially hard to diagnose in the early stages, when treatment might be more effective. For those who do get sick, the condition is almost always fatal. The CDC says it has a death rate of 95 percent.

Experts says the amoeba can infect anyone, including young, healthy people like Koral, but thsoe with weakened immune systems are generally at greater risk. The infection has never been known to spread from person to person.

By October 10, less than two weeks after she went to the ER, Koral was transferred to another hospital for emergency neurosurgery. But her condition continued to deteriorate. Soon she was unresponsive and could no longer breathe on her own. She died on October 20, 2014.

"It's so rare, it's nothing we can protect against or be hugely concerned about in our daily lives," Dr. Sharon Reed, a pathologist at UC San Diego Medical Center who worked on Meister's case, told the Press-Enterprise.

But Koral's friends and family hope others will learn from her tragic story. "Awareness and early detection are our best weapon," they write on her Facebook page, and they highlight early warning signs the CDC says to look out for:

  • Headaches
  • Stiff neck or head and neck pain with neck movement
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy (tiredness)
  • Low-grade fever
  • Behavioral changes
  • Seizures
  • Weight loss
  • Partial paralysis
  • Difficulty speaking in full sentences
  • Difficulty walking

Medical experts admit they still have a great deal to learn about this mysterious killer. "Currently, there are no known ways to prevent infection with Balamuthia since it is unclear how and why some people become infected while others do not," the CDC says. "Research is currently underway to learn more about Balamuthia in hopes of finding ways to prevent future infections."