Teenage girl dies from rare brain-attacking amoeba after visiting Whitewater Center in NC

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An Ohio teenager died Sunday after contracting a rare brain-attacking amoeba after visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

The infection is a “warm water-loving amoeba found around the world, often in warm or hot freshwater (lakes, rivers, and hot springs),” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amoeba can travel up the nose and into the brain. This causes a disease that destroys brain tissue and causes brain swelling and death.

WCMH in Ohio reports the victim in an 18-year-old girl from Westerville, Ohio, who was on a church trip.

Jim Wilson, senior pastor at Church of the Messiah United Methodist Church in Westerville, told WCMH the teen was part of his church’s youth music ministry group.

“She was an incredible person, so full of life,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a group of 32 students traveled to West Virginia and North Carolina to sing at churches and nursing homes. They built a recreational day into the trip to go rafting at the Whitewater Center. While it’s not clear where the girl contracted the disease, Wilson told WCMH that was the only place the group went where there was water.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department is collaborating with the CDC, the Ohio Department of Public Health, Franklin County Public Health Department, the North Carolina Division of Public Health and the U.S. National Whitewater Center to further investigate, according to a press release.

The suspected cause of death was attributed to Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, an infection caused by Naegleria fowleri, a one-celled organism that does not cause illness if swallowed, but can be fatal if forced up the nose.

Officials have not released any further information about the person who died but said their only known underwater exposure was believed to be when riding in a raft with several others that overturned at the Whitewater Center.

Naegleria fowleri infections are rare. According to the CDC, fewer than 10 cases have been reported annually in the United States during the last 53 years. This amoeba can cause severe illness up to nine days after exposure. Of 133 people known to be infected in the U.S. since 1962, only three people survived.

A person cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking contaminated water and the amoeba is not found in salt water.

In warmer areas where this infection has been more common, recommended precautions include:

  • Limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

For more information about Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, visit the CDC.

The National Whitewater Center on Wednesday released the following statement:

“The US National Whitewater Center sources its water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and 2 wells located on the premises. The water contained in the whitewater channels is in a closed loop system comprised entirely of concrete. The water is disinfected with ultraviolet radiation and filtered with a disc filtration system. The UV system is a constant application and treats 12 million gallons of water every 24 hours which is the total volume of the system. In addition to the UV treatment, the Center periodically augments that treatment through the injection of chlorine into the system. The levels of UV radiation disinfection utilized every day, continuously, at the Center are sufficient to “inactivate” the water born amoeba in question to an effective level of 99.99%. After contact from the County Health Department, the USNWC released additional chlorine into the system in an abundance of caution. The levels of chlorine used in this additional chlorine based method equal the effectiveness levels of the UV method and are equal to 3 times the levels used in swimming pools.. The US National Whitewater Center conducts water quality tests every week. Based on these tests and all available information, at all times, the USNWC has been in compliance with all required water quality standards and meets the requirements of all regulatory standards and authorities. Furthermore, the USNWC has requested additional testing specific to this issue in an abundance of caution. The USNWC is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and the Mecklenburg County Health Department to investigate the matter further.”

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