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Arkansas girl who has been battling rare, often-fatal brain infection is now able to speak

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Traci Hardig, mother of Kali Hardig, not pictured, is interviewed at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (AP2013)

A 12-year-old Arkansas girl who has been battling a rare and often-fatal infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba is now able to say a few words.

Kali Hardig was diagnosed last month with an infection caused by an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.

There were 128 such infections reported in the United States between 1962 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before Kali, doctors could only point to one known survivor in the U.S. and another in Mexico.

So it's remarkable that Kali is alive, let alone able to say anything.

"She's not speaking normal, but she is doing wonderful trying to pronounce stuff," Kali's mother, Traci Hardig, said Wednesday. "She can say 'yes' and 'no.'" She's also been able to say "Hi mama," ''daddy" and "nanny."

Health officials believe Kali got sick after a trip to a now-shuttered Arkansas water park that features a sandy-bottomed lake.

Naegleria fowleri (pronounced nuh-GLEER'-ee-uh FOW'-lur-ee) often is found in warm bodies of freshwater, such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. The amoeba typically enters the body through the nose as people are swimming or diving. It can then travel to the brain, causing a devastating infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM.

That's what Kali has been battling.

Initial symptoms usually start within one to seven days and may include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. The disease progresses rapidly, and other symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations.

Moreover, the infection destroys brain tissue and can cause brain swelling and death.

Doctors say Kali's success is due in large part to experimental treatment and early detection and diagnosis.

Traci Hardig brought Kali (pronounced KAY'-lee) to Arkansas Children's Hospital with a nasty fever on July 19.

Doctors cooled Kali's body down to try to reduce the swelling, and they won clearance to treat her with a breast-cancer drug.

Now, tests show no sign of the parasite in her system.

"It's still a concern that she could certainly have some deficits long-term and not function entirely as she would have if this had never happened," one of her doctors, Dr. Vikki Stefans, said.

But, for now, Kali is making progress.

"She's up and participating in all her therapy," Stefans said. "She's saying more, and things are basically looking good."

Kali also is able to take a few steps with help at the hospital.

"She'll walk across the room to her wheelchair," Traci Hardig said. "It's a real slow walk ... but we're really proud of her."

Kali will likely stay at the hospital for at least a few more weeks, and she'll be dealing with therapy for months.

But with support from her family and doctors, she's expected to do well.

"She's got half the world praying for her, too, which can't hurt," Stefans said.