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Fatal brain infection in North Carolina linked to amoeba found in hot lake water

A public health alert has been issued in North Carolina after someone contracted a rare brain infection and died after visiting a water park in eastern Cumberland County, a location best known as the home of Fort Bragg.

“An individual died after developing an illness caused by an amoeba that is naturally present in warm freshwater during the summer,” the NC Department of Health and Human Resources said in a news release. “The individual became ill after swimming in Fantasy Lake Water Park in Cumberland County on July 12, 2019.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the death was linked to Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in warm freshwater,” said state officials.

“Naegleria fowleri, referred to as the brain-eating amoeba, does not cause illness if swallowed, but can be fatal if forced up the nose, as can occur during diving, water-skiing or other water activities,” said a release.

“These rare infections usually occur when it is hot for prolonged periods of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels.”

The incident happened at Hope Mills’ Fantasy Lake and the victim was identified as Forsyth County resident Eddie Gray, who was part of a mission group visiting the park from Kernersville, according to WRAL.

“Our church family is deeply saddened by this loss and our prayers are with the family in this time of grief,” Rev. Justin Lowe, the senior pastor at Sedge Garden United Methodist Church, said in a news release. Our focus now is offering support and care for all of the family, as well as our larger church family.”

The same infection was blamed in the death of an 18-year-old Ohio woman in 2016 at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, reported the Charlotte Observer in 2016. Lauren Seitz was with a church group in June of that year when her raft over turned, exposing her to the water, the Observer said. She died days later.

It can take as long as nine days for someone to begin feeling the impact of the infection, officials said. The symptoms include severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and progress to seizures and coma, said state officials.

People cannot be infected by drinking water or salt water, but state officials said the warning was being issued to alert the public to other possible infection sites.

“As there is no means to eliminate this amoeba from fresh water lakes,” said a release. “People should be aware that this organism is present in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs across North Carolina, so be mindful as you swim or enjoy water sports,” said a statement from state epidemiologist Zack Moore.

State officials say the infection is so rare that only 145 confirmed cases are known in the U.S. “between zero and eight cases annually from 1962 through 2018.”

Five of those cases were in North Carolina, state officials said.

Precautions suggested by the state include:

  • Limit the water going up your nose by holding your nose shut, or keeping your head above water “when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities.”
  • Avoid getting into warm freshwater during periods when it’s hot and water levels are low.
  • Avoid stirring up the sediment while in shallow areas at freshwater sites.

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