The U.S. National Whitewater Center has halted all whitewater activities after numerous tests for a “brain-eating” amoeba came back positive.
All other activities are still on at the Whitewater Center. It’s unknown how long the whitewater area will be closed.
This decision was made less than a week after an Ohio teenager died soon after visiting the Whitewater Center, from complications from the amoeba’s infection. The federal CDC immediately conducted a series of tests to determine if the amoeba was present.
Eleven samples were taken from various parts of the whitewater feature and its inner workings and a “majority” of them came back with traces of the single-celled organism Naegleria fowleri, according to Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County health director.
The Whitewater Center has a sophisticated and modern disinfection system that includes ultraviolet treatment and chlorination, it wasn’t enough to keep the organism out of the water, he said.
The presence of this amoeba doesn’t mean that there was a failure of the system – none have been reported, and the Center has been “very open” with the county and state, Plescia said. The contamination could have come from something as simple as soil runoff into the water.
Plescia said he wasn’t surprised by the test results. He emphasized just how common it is for swimmers in open bodies of water to come in contact with the organism, but that death is a severe, rare outcome.
“This is not a great surprise. The organism is ubiquitous,” he said in a press conference Friday night. “It’s present in many open water sources, but we have confirmed that it is indeed present in the Whitewater Center.”
When the results came back, the Whitewater Center decided to halt all whitewater activities as of Friday evening.
By shutting the activities down, the Whitewater Center is aiming to “continue to have the confidence of the public” by taking a few days to figure out what the next steps to increase the safety are, Plescia said.
Plescia said that while there would be discussions about the next steps, neither the county nor the state had plans to ask the Center to shut down if they didn’t do so voluntarily.
“When we shared the information we have and some of the concerns we had, they made the decision that that’s what they thought they should do,” Plescia stated. He doesn’t believe that the activities should have been shut down before now, and said the halting of the programs was done out of an “abundance of caution.”
All land activities, as well as flat water activities, are still functioning as normal.
In the meantime, the Center will be meeting with the county and state health departments over the next few days to figure out the next few steps and how to make people feel safe again.
“We want the public to feel safe in going there, but we also need to be realistic about what can and can’t be done,” Plescia said.
Being able to promise that a body of water is “totally safe” is “very challenging” in this sort of situation, where the goal is to disinfect the water to the point that the microorganism is undetectable. Chances are, that’s never going to happen, especially with an organism that is found so often in most bodies of open water, Plescia said.
“I don’t know if it’s realistic to say we would totally get rid of the organism,” he said, adding that it’s not feasible to believe that we can avoid contact with it completely.
Plescia reminded the public that swimmers can come into contact in any situation, whether they’re swimming in a lake, pond or river.
But that’s not to say that they won’t try.
Despite the Whitewater Center’s decision, Plescia is adamant that people shouldn’t be overly concerned.
What he and the Whitewater Center acknowledge as being a truly tragic situation is also beyond rare, with just 35 cases over the last 10 years.
There are plenty of germs and microorganisms that can do “various types of harm” swimming in lakes, ponds and rivers that people spend time in.
“I think we often don’t realize that, so that’s an important thing to take into consideration.”
There’s no word yet on when the whitewater activities will be able to be resumed and refunds are being offered.
For now, the Whitewater Center will continue to work with the county, state and CDC to come up with solutions that will assure the public that it’s a safe place to spend time.