Over the last decade, health officials have seen an estimated 35 cases of infections from a single-cell amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.
It’s possible that the latest case came from the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
While it’s not dangerous to the human body if swallowed, it can be fatal if inhaled, destroying brain tissue and causing the brain itself to swell.
Although the amoeba is seen during warm summer months in Southern states, this is the first and only case linked to Charlotte, said Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County health director.
But one thing the health department continues to say is that they believe the Whitewater Center is safe to use.
The implication: This case, if confirmed, is kind of a freak accident that could happen anywhere.
Let’s back up. On Sunday, 18-year-old Lauren Seitz of Ohio died from this infection after a church youth group trip to West Virginia and North Carolina that included a stop at the Whitewater Center.
It’s still not certain that the Whitewater Center is the source and may never be.
“We’re still gathering information from the health department in Ohio about the specifics of this case and how it may have occurred,” Plescia said in a press conference Wednesday morning.
What is known for certain is that the group of people she was traveling with did stop at the Whitewater Center on June 8.
It is believed that when a raft she was in overturned, she inhaled the amoeba. Her traveling companions said that in the span of the amoeba’s incubation period (anywhere from one to nine days), the Whitewater Center was the only body of water she was in.
No other individuals from the trip are showing any symptoms.
The Whitewater Center is “very concerned” and has been cooperative with the health department.
Although they’re not a water source that is regulated by the county or the state, their own system of testing is “very sophisticated” and involves a sanitizing system, according to a statement from the Whitewater Center. The Health Department says that the company is “very diligent” about the water quality.
The water there —a mix of Charlotte and local well water — is chlorinated and treated with UV light.
The levels of radiation disinfection are “sufficient to ‘inactivate’ the water borne amoeba in question to an effective level of 99.99%,” the Whitewater Center said in a statement released yesterday.
The Whitewater Center also said it released additional chlorine into their water after being contacted by the county Health Department – three times the levels used in swimming pools.
The CDC will be testing there this week. But health officials say the Whitewater Center is safe.
“We think that the Whitewater Center is as safe as any body of open water,” Plescia said. “One of the things that you have to realize that any time you go swimming in a lake or a pond or any open water that isn’t treated the way a swimming pool is treated, there are things in that water that can cause illness. So right now, our feeling is that the Whitewater Center really isn’t any different than the lakes in this region or the ponds in this region.”
As for those who have spent time there recently, if you’re not feeling ill, don’t worry. Plescia did advise, however, that if you have developed any symptoms of meningitis (high fever, stiff neck, vision changes), head to your doctor — regardless of where you’ve been. In the young woman who died this week, the amoebic infection caused meningitis, which is a common complication.
If you swim in an open body of water, regardless of what type or where it’s located, you are always at risk, Plescia said. It’s common to find the bacteria in lakes, ponds and any other bodies of water not treated with chlorine like a pool is. What’s uncommon is for people to develop such a swift, fatal infection.
“It’s very unusual for [this] to happen, so for the most part, the Health Department doesn’t discourage people from swimming in those sites,” he said.
If you are concerned, he suggests avoiding getting water up your nose, which can be done by not going under the water, trying not to get water in the back of your mouth or throat or wearing nose clips.
“People need to take this in context and realize that this is a very rare infection,” he said. “I think people need to be aware that when they go into open sources of water — lakes, ponds, even some swimming pools that aren’t well-regulated — there are things in the bodies of water that could be harmful.”
The Whitewater Center will remain open and most likely will not shut down.
“We’ve mentioned all along that the Whitewater Center, unless we find a specific problem with the Whitewater Center, isn’t any different from any lake or pond,” Plescia said. “We’re not going to close every lake or pond.”
In a separate statement from Whitewater Center CEO Jeff Wise, he stated that the Center “will be thinking of Lauren and her family and doing everything possible to help to understand the facts related to this matter.”