Georgia teenager who died of brain-eating amoeba dreamed of going to UGA

Ever since the 6th grade, Megan Ebenroth has had her heart set on attending the University of Georgia.

The highly driven 17-year-old did everything she could to make it happen: She was a straight-A student, president of the Beta club and vice president of the Spanish club. She recently took up tennis and played on her high school team to help round out her extracurricular activities.

Megan, who lived in Dearing, a small town near Augusta, was enjoying the last few weeks of summer before entering her senior year, swimming with friends at a lake not too far from her home in McDuffie County. The last time they bathed was Tuesday, July 11.

Eleven days later she was dead.

An extremely rare and usually fatal brain infection caused by Naegleria fowlerian amoeba that destroys brain tissue took the life of a teenage girl with big dreams and a vibrant personality.

“I’m still in shock,” Megan’s mother, Christina Ebenroth, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “But I can’t shut up about her. She was extraordinary.”

Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba, a single-celled organism that lives in soil and warm freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds and hot springs. The organism is commonly called the “brain-eating amoeba” because it causes a brain infection—primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM)—when water containing the amoeba goes up the nose. The amoeba is not found in salt water and is not found in properly treated drinking water and swimming pools.

Paul Johnson, the coroner for McDuffie County, told The AJC that he was contacted about Megan’s death by The Children’s Hospital of Georgia at Augusta University Health. He confirmed that she died of the rare brain infection.

Public health officials in Georgia announced Friday that an unidentified Georgia resident had died of the rare brain infection, but would not release details about where the person was exposed. DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email: “If we say it was in a certain body of water, it might not be there today. Additionally, we risk giving a false sense of security that it’s only the particular body of water when it could be anywhere.”

Ebenroth also declined to name the location where her daughter bathed. What happened to her daughter was a terrible case. None of her friends who went swimming were sick. And the place, she said, is a place where families bond, and she doesn’t want what happened to her daughter to end that for others.

Several agencies contacted by the AJC, including the Department of Natural Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers, said they did not know the site.

Dennis Kyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Kyle Lab, which focuses on the development of anti-parasitic drugs, said it is highly unusual for authorities not to share the location of a place where someone was infected by Naegleria fowleri. He said authorities should name the site but put it in context – Naegleria fowleri can exist in any freshwater, anywhere in the United States, and its presence one day does not necessarily mean it will be there the next, or that someone else would be infected by swimming in the same place.

The CDC says Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, with about three cases each year in the United States. 157 cases were reported between 1962 and 2022. Only four people with confirmed cases have survived, According to the CDC.

Before Megan’s death, there had been five other cases reported in Georgia since 1962.

A 2-year-old boy died earlier this month in Nevada from a Naegleria fowleri brain infection. Officials with the Nevada Department of Public and Behavioral Health said they believe the boy was exposed at Ash Springs, a natural hot spring in Lincoln County. In February, a Florida man died after being infected through sinus irrigation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The signs of a Naegleria fowleri infection usually begins with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progresses to stiff neck, seizures and coma. Symptoms usually begin about five days after infection, but can begin any time within 1 to 12 days. Once symptoms start, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within about five days.

Kyle said a reason Naegleria fowleri is so deadly because the symptoms of the infection resemble viral meningitis, a much more common and more treatable disease. While the current drugs to treat this brain infection are not very effective, delays in diagnosis often mean it is too late for the person “to even have a chance” of survival, he said.

His lab is working on a simple urine test to speed up diagnosis so patients can start treatment as soon as possible. According to the CDC, primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) is treated with a combination of antibiotics and antifungal drugs. Two children infected separately in the summers of 2013 and 2016 survived PAM — and the CDC credits their early diagnosis and treatment for their survival.

Kyle said scientists don’t know why some people become infected with the amoeba, while others – swimming in the same water at the same time – do not.

Megan woke up with a bad headache four days after the July 11 swim. Her mother took her to an emergency clinic and she was treated for a migraine. As the day progressed, Megan’s head continued to hurt a lot. Her mother said she then took her to a local emergency room, where her daughter was treated for a sinus infection, prescribed an antibiotic, and sent home.

Megan rested at home on Monday, and that night her mother slept by her side. On Tuesday morning, Ebenroth could feel her daughter’s high fever.

Megan’s parents then drove her to the emergency room at Doctors Hospital of Augusta. Megan underwent a series of blood tests and received intravenous fluids, but her condition continued to deteriorate. She was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Georgia, where she was intubated for several days. At one point, Ebenroth said doctors opened up her daughter’s skull to relieve her brain swelling.

It wasn’t until Friday, July 21 that she heard anything that suggested her daughter might have been attacked by the brain-eating amoeba. Megan died the next day.

A spokesman for Children’s Hospital of Georgia at Augusta University Health declined to comment, saying they could not confirm that Megan had received care at their hospital, citing federal HIPAA privacy regulations.

“They were so caring, I had the best doctors and nurses. I don’t blame anyone,” Ebenroth said. “This was an act of God. Right now I have to find out why.”

Ebenroth said she was her daughter’s homeroom teacher every year, driving her to school every morning and picking her up every day after school.

“She was my world,” Ebenroth said.

Kyle of the UGA Kyle Lab said he was deeply saddened by Megan’s death. The amoebic infection, he said, is very serious and “something I worry about all the time,” especially during the summer months when unusually warm weather raises water temperatures, creating ripe conditions for the deadly amoebas.

DPH said there are no routine tests to check pond or lake water for the amoebas, which are naturally occurring. The location and number of amoebae in the water can vary over time within the same water area.

DPH said the amoebas cannot cause infection if they is swallowed. The infection does not spread from person to person.

DPH also said those who swim in warm, fresh recreational water should always assume there is a risk of infection, even a low risk. Swimmers can reduce the risk by limiting the amount of water that goes up the nose.

In addition to her mother, Megan is survived by her father, Steve Ebenroth, and an older brother, Matt.

Ebenroth said she and her daughter were extremely close, even “best friends”.

“She told people I was her best friend and I said ‘Honey I can’t be your best friend’ and about three weeks ago she said ‘come on mum you know I’m your best friend, and I said, ‘Yes honey, you are.’

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