Blake Driggers was always smiling. In fact the 8-year-old would often have to be told to tone it down for family photos.
“Because he would be over-smiling,” his uncle Chuck Driggers said Thursday from the family home in Sumter.
Thursday was the first day he and other members of the family had returned to the boy’s house, Driggers said, since the happy, smiling Blake lost his life to a rare brain infection. The infection was caused by an amoeba more than a week earlier on a day of family fun on Lake Marion.
State health officials say that what infected the boy isn’t a widespread public health concern. But they did issue reminders about safe swimming during the hot summer months.
Sometime around July 7, Blake is thought to have contracted an infection from an amoeba known as Naegleri fowleri while enjoying the water with his sisters and others along for the trip to the lake.
Seven days later, he was rushed to the emergency room, suffering from a high fever and vomiting. From there, he was taken to Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia. By Sunday, Chuck Driggers said, Blake was unresponsive.
Driggers said it wasn’t until Blake had passed away that the family even heard the words Naegleri fowleri.
“It came on very quickly,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, there was not any more that could be done. It had just progressed so quickly.”
While the deadly infection is extremely rare, officials say, microscopic Naegleria fowleri is not.
In fact, the amoeba, which also caused the death of a 10-year-old Mount Pleasant girl two summers ago, is naturally occurring in many warm-water lakes, rivers and streams. It’s so prevalent that officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control say closing places of recreation or banning swimming in those areas is virtually impossible.
“The chances (of closing swimming areas) are low at this point, since it’s found in the water naturally,” DHEC’s medical epidemiologist, Kathleen Antonetti, said. “Other than completely avoiding warm fresh water, which isn’t popular in South Carolina, (swimmers) can use nose clips and hold their nose while diving if going into lakes or ponds.”
Antonetti said the rareness of contracting an infection from the amoeba, which has made it difficult to study, is also problematic.
“It’s so scary and seems so random, and we don’t know much about it,” she said. “It’s so very rare and very frightening, so it gets people’s attention.”
The amoeba can only enter the body through the nasal passages and not by ingestion. Brain infections caused by the amoeba are so rare, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented only 32 cases nationally from 2001 to 2010.
In South Carolina, six people are believed to have contracted an infection as a result of inhaling the amoeba since 1970. Although Antonetti could not verify the outcomes of those cases, the mortality rate from an infection caused by the amoeba is 95 percent.
“So they most likely all passed (away) from infection,” she said.
And while Antonetti said she could not say exactly what infection Blake must have contracted from the amoeba, she said primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, the disease that two years ago took the life of Liza Hollingsworth, presumably from swimming in Lake Moultrie, is caused by the same amoeba.
“The organism is the amoeba Naegleri fowleri,” she said. “Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis is the disease.”
In the meantime, as a precaution, Blake’s two sisters have been receiving medical treatment.
“Just on the off chance that they had the same exposure,” Chuck Driggers said. “But they certainly have not been sick like Blake was.”
Driggers credits his family’s faith, along with a close group of friends – many from Northside Memorial Baptist in Sumter, where Blake was baptized last Easter – as getting them through a “difficult time.”
“We’re all hurting because of not having him here,” he said. “But it is a comfort to know that Blake is with God now.”
For others who knew Blake, not having all the answers, especially for those his age, will be difficult.
At Alice Drive Elementary School, where the rising third-grader was well liked and popular, the school’s faculty and staff were to meet Thursday to discuss how best to help students cope when they return next month.
“It will be difficult for the students,” said the school’s principal, Sheree Boozer.
“Everyone here will miss him tremendously. He had a very outgoing personality and was just a sweet, sweet boy.”
Those wanting to help the family or make a donation in Blake’s memory can donate to accounts established at Safe Federal Bank in Sumter or through the “Remembering Blake Driggers” account at PayPal online, the family said.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.