Editorial note: The story has been updated to add new information about where balamuthia is typically found.
A Southern California mother grieving the loss of her 20-year-old daughter who came into contact with a deadly amoeba is trying to raise awareness about the difficult-to-diagnose infection.
Koral Reef Pier died last October from a rare but often fatal brain-eating amoeba called balamuthia mandrillaris.
“It just eats your brain. It’s like a sci-fi movie, really,” her mother, Sybil Meister, told KTLA on Tuesday. “It eats your brain until there’s nothing left.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, balamuthia is typically found in dust and soil, but may also live in water.
Her family said it was likely the newly married woman contracted the amoeba during a family trip to Lake Havasu in May 2013, more than a year before she died.
“Nobody can say for sure, because there’s so little research on balamuthia,” Meister said.
Balamuthia can incubate in the body for up to two years, according to the CDC. Once in the body, the amoeba can travel to the brain and ultimately cause something called Granulomatous Amebic Encephalitis, a severe disease that is fatal in 95 percent of cases.
Pier first started showing symptoms of balamuthia several months after the Lake Havasu trip, around fall 2013.
Initially, her symptoms included headaches, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, her mother said. But slowly, her symptoms progressed and became much more severe over the course of year.
Eventually, Pier experienced sensitivity to light and heat, was partially paralyzed in her face, and lost her vision, her family said.
Doctors initially thought she was suffering from migraines, but after performing a biopsy, diagnosed her with deadly balamuthia.
Within weeks of checking into the hospital, the once-healthy newlywed died.
Her relatives are sharing the young woman’s story with the hope of raising awareness about balamuthia and warning people of the risks in areas including California, Arizona and Florida.
They are urging people planning on visiting lakes, rivers and water parks to wear nose plugs, and also avoid getting tap water in the nose.
“Nobody should die of something that’s preventable,” said Katelyn Thomas, Pier’s cousin.