A brain-eating amoeba that led to the death of an Ohio teenager has been identified at unusually high levels in the water her raft flipped in a week before she died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced that eleven samples taken from water at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in North Carolina tested positive for Naegleria fowleri, a freshwater amoeba that can lead to a fatal disease. The CDC says that inadequate water sanitation is the probable cause of the whitewater park’s high levels of the amoeba.
Lauren Seitz, an 18-year-old from Ohio, had been rafting at the US National Whitewater Center on June 8 on a church group trip. Her raft flipped, potentially allowing Naegleria fowleri to enter her nose and reach her brain. She died June 19 from primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a rapidly fatal disease caused by the amoeba that carries a mortality rate of more than 95 percent. The amoeba can grow rapidly in warm freshwater, but infections are rare.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center remains open for land, flatwater and trail activities but has voluntarily suspended their whitewater operations. In a July 4 statement they said they are currently removing all water from their whitewater system, cleaning the entirety of the channels and working with experts to put additional water quality measures in place. They aim to resume rafting within a few weeks.
CDC spokesperson Brittany Behm says the U.S. National Whitewater Center is unique because it combines elements of both man-made and natural bodies of water, meaning it doesn’t fit into previous research on the amoeba. She recommends that freshwater swimmers try to avoid stirring up sediment while swimming and to keep water from going up their noses, but should also maintain perspective on the rarity of infection by Naegleria fowleri. “It’s important to remember there are millions of people who go swimming every year and it only results in about eight infections per year.”
Naegleria fowleri enters the nasal passage while an individual is in freshwater, and travels to the brain where it consumes nerve cells and causes infection. The first symptoms of primary amebic meningoencephalitis appear in the first week after infection, death can occur after seven to 10 days and treatment is rarely successful.