A family is devastated and health officials are searching for answers after a 9-year-old Kansas girl died from a "brain-eating amoeba" after swimming in several different bodies of water over the last seven to 14 days.
Hally "Bug" Nicole Yust passed away Wednesday. She lives in Spring Hill, right by Hillsdale Lake and she loved all things water-related.
"Anything she did, she did it to the fullest," said her older brother, Parker. "She lived life big."
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment determined that Hally died from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) caused by Naegleria fowleri.
Naegleria fowleri is commonly referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba" or "brain-eating ameba" and is a free-living amoeba found in freshwater.
Officials have not determined exactly where the Spring Hill girl contracted the infection. She apparently had been swimming in several area lakes. As an avid water skier, it's likely that Hally got the infection when lake water got up her nose.
Her family stressed, though, that the outcome is extremely rare.
"You're more likely to die from drowning than you are ever from this organism. It's like one in a billion. This girl was a one in a billion. There's a reason that God picked her and I'm still trying to figure that out, but once I do, watch out; It's going to be great," Shon Yust, Hally's father, said.
Her parents, brother and two sisters spoke to reporters Friday as they celebrated her colorful, sparkling personality.
"She loved everything. She especially loved basketball, water skiing and fishing," her mother, Jenny Yust, said. "She especially loved playing with all of her little friends especially boys."
She had a lifelong passion to be a college basketball player, and wanted to play at Kansas State. A scholarship has been set up in her name at the university.
"Hally was home schooled and attended Mighty Oaks Enrichment Center in Gardner. With a lifelong passion to be a college basketball player, Hally knew no stranger and lived life to the fullest, sharing her love for Jesus. She enjoying waterskiing, water sports of any kind, farming with Dad, video making, song writing, and spending time with friends and family. As a giver, caretaker, sister, daughter, and friend, Hally was the light to the world and a blessing to all," the obit said.
Initial laboratory examination has identified the presence of Naegleria fowleri in a specimen from Hally. Additional laboratory testing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pending.
This is the second known case of PAM caused by Naegleria fowleri in Kansas. The first case occurred in 2011.
The investigation into Hally's death indicates there were four bodies on water in Kansas in which she had been in, so the actual source of the infection cannot be determined.
Naegleria fowleri can be found in freshwater environments around the world, but infection causing PAM is extremely rare. From 1962 to 2013, there have been 132 cases reported in the United States, with 34 of those cases occurring from 2004 to 2013. Most cases have occurred in southern-tier states.
The risk of infection is very low, but increases during the summer months when water temperatures rise and more people participate in water-related activities. The infection typically occurs when the amoeba enters the body through the nose while the person is swimming underwater or diving and travels to the brain.
The amoeba that likely led to Hally's death is in lakes and rivers all over the U.S. and the trouble comes when someone gets water up their nose. The amoeba can then travel to the brain, causing encephalitis, which eat away at the brain tissue.
"We are very saddened to learn of this unfortunate circumstance, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends during this difficult time," said Robert Moser, MD, KDHE secretary and state health officer, in a news release. "It is important for the public to know that infections like these are extremely rare and there are precautions one can take to lower their risk - such as nose plugs."
Symptoms usually appear about five days after infection, but can range between one and seven days, and include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance and bodily control, seizures and hallucinations. This infection cannot be spread from person to person or contracted from a properly maintained swimming pool.
Though the risk of infection is extremely low, the following precautions might decrease the possibility of infection:
There is no known way to control the occurrence of Naegleria fowleri in freshwater lakes and rivers.
Charles Hunt, an epidemiologist with the KDHE, said it's extremely rare, so people shouldn't be afraid to swim in area lakes, but they should try to avoid getting lake water in their noses.
If recognized early, there is an investigational drug available only through the CDC that can help.
A Celebration of Life in Hally's honor will be held at 4 p.m. Monday at Life Church, 16111 S. Lone Elm Rd., Olathe, KS.
Her family released a written statement that spoke of the joy Hally brought to them and also their hope that her death doesn't stop others from enjoying the water.
"Our precious daughter Hally loved life and part of her great joy in life was spending time playing in the water."
"Her life was taken by a rare amoeba organism that grows in many different fresh water settings. We want you to know this tragic event is very, very rare, and this is not something to become fearful about."
"We hope you will not live in fear of this rare infection that took our daughter's life. Our family is very active in water sports, and we will continue to be."
"We pray that Hally's life is not in vain. We are so thankful that she is now with Jesus and her spirit lives on."
"We appreciate all the love and support from everyone."
"Hally was in no less than 4 different bodies of fresh water in the state of Kansas in the last 7 to 14 days. This organism lives in all bodies of fresh water, and it is a one in a billion occurrence. We are a thousand times more likely to die from drowning than to have this happen to us."
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Hally "Bug" Yust K-State Women's Basketball Scholarship, Ahearn Fund, 1800 College Ave., suite 138, Manhattan, KS 66502.
"We hope that this will provide educational opportunities for young women who loved basketball as much as Hally did," her family wrote.
More personal contributions of balloons or stuffed animals will be donated to Children's Mercy Hospital. Condolences may be left at www.brucefuneralhome.com.
KCTV5's DeAnn Smith contributed to this report.
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