Whitewater Center rafting closes after brain-eating amoeba found in water

U.S. National Whitewater Center officials closed the park’s water channels Friday after investigators detected the waterborne amoeba suspected in the death of an Ohio teen who had visited the center.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County’s health director, said the center voluntarily decided to close the channels, which are popular for whitewater rafting and kayaking.

County manager Dena Diorio, in an earlier email to commissioners, had said health officials would order the facility to close temporarily if it did not agree to do so voluntarily.

The center remains open for all other operations and activities, which include non-aquatic activities such as a zip line and rope courses.

“The USNWC is working with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and local health officials to develop next steps,” the center said in a statement.

At a news conference, Plescia said lab tests will be done to confirm the preliminary results announced Friday.

“This is not a great surprise, because this organism is ubiquitous,” he said. “It’s present in many open bodies of water.”

The amoeba, Naegleria Fowleri, was found in most of the 11 water samples the CDC took Wednesday, Plescia said. The amoeba is commonly found in warm, open bodies of water.

The whitewater park uses ultraviolet radiation to disinfect the 12 million gallons of water that recirculate in concrete channels. The park says the disinfection “inactivates” 99.99 percent of waterborne amoeba.

Plescia said there is no indication that system broke down. A park spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Observer asked Wednesday to see the center’s recent water test records. A spokesman said he would check with managers but did not respond further.

People who have visited the popular center recently don’t need to be concerned, the health director said.

“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," he said. “We need to weigh this particular threat against what people might see in the real world if you go to a river or a lake or even some swimming pools.”

Megan Bullock, who works at the River’s Edge Restaurant at the Whitewater Center, said she is scared by the recent death.

“It really freaks me out, because they always say this is a one-in-a-million thing, but for it to happen here is crazy,” she said. “I’ve been in that water and I know a lot of people who have been in the water, so it’s really scary. … You may not know you have it until you’re too late.”

Lauren Seitz, 18, died Sunday, a few days after rafting at the Whitewater Center. Her death was from a form of meningitis caused by the amoeba.

Naegleria Fowleri rarely causes infections – only 37 were reported in the United States between 2005 and 2014 – but they nearly always are fatal when they do occur.

Contact with the amoeba can be fatal if forced up a person’s nose. Seitz was with several others in a raft that overturned June 8 at the Whitewater Center, health officials said.

The CDC is investigating her death and took water samples at the park Wednesday.

Mecklenburg County officials have likened the whitewater park to other open bodies of water, like the Catawba River that flows beside it in western Mecklenburg, and initially said they didn’t expect to close it.

Whitewater officials said they added chlorine to the water Tuesday, after being notified that Seitz had died. The center normally relies on a filtration system and ultraviolet radiation to treat water that recirculates in the concrete channels.

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

Staff writers Celeste Smith, Keith Larsen and Rachel Stone contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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