Rare brain-eating amoeba infection blamed in death of teen who visited Whitewater Center

Health officials discuss brain-eating amoeba

Local, state and national health officials are investigating the Sunday death of an 18-year-old woman who may have contracted a rare brain-eating amoeba during a visit to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
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Local, state and national health officials are investigating the Sunday death of an 18-year-old woman who may have contracted a rare brain-eating amoeba during a visit to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Local, state and national health officials are investigating Sunday’s death of an 18-year-old Ohio woman who may have contracted an infection from a rare brain-eating amoeba while rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

On Wednesday, the center remained open under normal operations after extra precautions were taken to ensure the water met quality control standards, whitewater officials said.

Experts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went to the center Wednesday to test the water, CDC medical epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Cope said.

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

“We are continuing to work with health officials to examine the facts involved in Lauren’s case, although we have been told repeatedly that little additional information will be determinable specific to this occasion,” Jeff Wise, CEO of the whitewater center, said in a letter Wednesday evening.

“In the meantime, we will be thinking of Lauren and her family and doing everything possible to help to understand the facts related to this matter.”

The suspected cause of death is attributed to Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM), an infection caused by Naegleria floweri, an amoeba that dwells in warm freshwater lakes and other bodies of water during the summer. People cannot be infected with it by drinking contaminated water, and the one-celled organism is not found in salt water.

But it can be fatal if forced up a person’s nose. The teen was in a raft with several others that overturned at the whitewater center, health officials said.

The center “is as safe as any body of water,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County Health Department director. “Any time you go into a lake or pond, there are things in the water that can cause illnesses.”

He said it is unlikely authorities will try to close the whitewater center.

Initial water results may be available in a few days, Cope said. But even if tests turn up negative, that may just mean the amoeba was not in the water sample they happened to collect.

The whitewater center said it disinfects its water with an ultraviolet radiation. The center also uses a disc filtration system and conducts water quality tests weekly.

Plescia said that even with regular testing the water can be contaminated by a variety of sources. “It can be fine one minute and have (soil) runoff the next,” he said. He also said medical authorities don’t know why some people become infected while most do not.

Most people are going to be perfectly safe going swimming in lakes and ponds and at the whitewater center.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County Health Department director

‘Talented, humble, caring’

Seitz, the victim, lived in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Westerville. She had just graduated from high school in the spring and was heading off to college in the fall. Seitz was visiting Southern states as part of a youth mission music tour with her church.

Seitz’s pastor, Jim Wilson with Church of the Messiah United Methodist Church in Westerville, said the group’s “fun day” was a trip to the Whitewater Center June 8.

A church staffer said they believed the group did not enter the adjacent Catawba River. According to Wilson, June 8 is the only day the group went swimming. They returned home June 11, and Seitz died June 19.

Tim Smith, the director of youth music at Seitz’s church, was on the trip to the Whitewater Center. He said the Whitewater Center informed their group beforehand that they would get wet and possibly end up in the water.

“There were waivers, everyone had to have one on file before we were in the facility,” he said.

Smith said Seitz appeared healthy for the rest of the trip, which lasted three more days after their visit to the Whitewater Center. It was after they arrived back in Ohio, he said, that she started displaying symptoms.

On Tuesday night, the Westerville South High School band hosted a memorial for Seitz.

She had just graduated in May and was a drum major in the marching band. She had declared a music minor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and hoped to study environmental science.

“She loved nature,” Smith said. “There was a really cool moment on the trip when a potted plant fell over, and she jumped off the bus, uprighted it, and made sure it was OK before we left. She saw beauty in small things and was just a wonderful young person.”

A rare infection

The amoebic infection is rare but deadly. Of 133 people known to have been infected since 1962, only three survived, according to the CDC’s website.

This is apparently the first case in Mecklenburg County, Plescia said.

There have been at least three other reported deaths tied to the amoeba since 1991 in North Carolina, in Pitt and Wake counties.

Initial symptoms of PAM start about five days after infection, according to the CDC. Symptoms include fever, headache or vomiting and can progress into seizures and hallucinations. The CDC reports that after the start of the symptoms, the disease generally causes death within about five days.

Whitewater visitors concerned

Observer reporters talked to some visitors to the center Wednesday before being escorted off the site.

There was little indication anything unusual had happened – except for the sharp smell of chlorine. Some visitors said they had not heard about what happened to Seitz.

Sonya Bloomer, of Fayetteville, had been to the center before and detected a difference in the water Tuesday night. “I noticed ... the chlorine smell was really strong,” she said.

Another visitor, Georgieanne Bogdan, a staff member at Guilford College, said she changed her plans and would stay out of the water after hearing about the death.

Water safety

In a statement, whitewater officials said they met with the county health department Tuesday after learning about the death and released additional chlorine into the water system “in an abundance of caution.”

“Based on these tests and all available information, at all times, the USNWC has been in compliance with all required water quality standards and meets the requirements of all regulatory standards and authorities,” according to the center.

The center said it gets its water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells on the premises.

The water’s ultraviolet radiation treatment is constant, the center said, so it only injects chlorine into its system on an “as-needed” basis, as was the case this time. The levels of UV radiation used are sufficient to “inactivate” the water-borne amoeba in question to an effective level of 99.99 percent, the center said.

Center officials say they also aren’t aware of any breakdowns in their systems for treating the water.

The nonprofit center, which opened in November 2006, is not inspected by the county. The center does not meet the criteria to be considered a pool, which are inspected routinely, Plescia said, although the county was involved with the design of its sophisticated system for sanitizing the water.

“This is a very tragic situation, and I don’t mean to undermine it,” Plescia said. “But most people are going to be perfectly safe going swimming in lakes and ponds and at the Whitewater Center.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James said the public is entitled to detailed information about the quality of the center’s water – and about how it treats that water.

He notes that the center operates on county land under a long-term lease agreement, and that it received public subsidies for its first seven years of operation.

“They clearly have an obligation to provide a record of what they did and when they did it,” James said. “ … With government money comes rules and disclosure.”

Commissioners expect to get an update on the situation from Plescia in early July, James said.

“The real question is, ‘Was this a public health risk? Or was it just an unfortunate occurrence?’ 

Naegleria fowleri, or "brain-eating amoeba", is an incredibly rare and deadly microorganism that can be found in warm freshwater.

Observer reporter Rachel Herzog and researcher Maria David contributed.

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