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What you need to know about the rare brain-eating amoeba and the Whitewater Center

Lauren Seitz, an 18-year-old Ohio woman, died Sunday of what is believed to be a rare amoebic infection, a little less than two weeks after she and her church group visited the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Investigators do not know for certain if the victim contracted the amoeba at the center during her June 8 visit. But authorities are unaware of any other circumstances that could have led to her getting the infection.

Here are the answers to some of the questions you may have about the amoeba, Charlotte’s Whitewater Center and the safety of water-related activities. All information about the disease is gathered from the CDC’s website.

Q: What did the young woman die from?

A: Health officials have said they suspect Lauren Seitz died from an infection caused by an amoeba named Naegleria fowleri. The infection it inflicts, Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis, destroys brain tissue, which causes brain swelling and usually death.

Q: Where does this amoeba dwell?

A. It lives in bodies of warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers. It cannot live in bodies of saltwater, like the ocean. You cannot get the Naegleria fowleri infection from properly cleaned, maintained and disinfected swimming pools.

Q: How does this infection occur?

A. The infection happens when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose, typically when individuals go swimming or diving in warm, fresh water. The amoeba travels up through the nose into the brain. You cannot contract the infection by drinking contaminated water.

Q: How common is this infection?

A: Naegleria flowleri infections are rare. From 2006 to 2015, 37 infections were reported. Thirty-three of those people were infected by contaminated recreational water. The amoeba Naegleria is very common. Doctors don’t yet understand why a few people get the infection and the vast majority do not.

Q: Is it contagious?

A: No. The infection cannot be spread from one person to another.

Q: Is it always fatal?

A: Only three people of the 138 known infected individuals from 1962 to 2015 have survived, which places the fatality rate at 97 percent.

Q: How long does it take for the infection to set in?

A: The initial symptoms take anywhere from one to seven days to set in, usually around five. After the start of the symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within five days, though the range previously has been one to 12.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: The primary symptoms are fever, headache, nausea or vomiting. Later symptoms include stiff neck, confusion, seizures and hallucinations.

Q: Is the Whitewater Center still open?

A: Yes. They are currently operating under normal hours.

Q: Is it safe?

A: Dr. Marcus Plescia, director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said the whitewater center “is as safe as any body of water. Any time you go into a lake or pond, there are things in the water that can cause illnesses….It’s very, very rare to see this kind of infection and this kind of reaction.”

Q: Where does the Whitewater Center’s water come from?

A: In a statement the center said it gets its water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells on location. They clean their water through UV treatment and inject chlorine into its system on an “as needed” basis, as was the case this time. According to a statement released by the center, the levels of UV radiation used are sufficient to “inactivate” 99.99 percent of the water-born amoeba in question.

Q: Should I avoid swimming in fresh bodies of water?

A: Though the Naegleria amoeba is common, one species, Naegleria fowleri, is infectious. The CDC reports that sampling of lakes in the southern tier of the U.S. indicates that Naegleria fowleri is commonly present in many southern tier lakes in the U.S. during the summer, though the disease it inflicts is rare. The CDC shared that hundreds of millions of visits to swimming venues occur each year in the U.S. that result in zero to eight infections per year.

Have a question? Email kmcole@charlotteobserver.com.

Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer

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