Teen dies from rare brain-eating amoeba infection after visiting Whitewater Center

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Local, state and federal health officials are investigating after an Ohio teenager died from brain-eating amoeba days after visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Naegleria fowleri is a brain-eating amoeba found in warm freshwater, like lakes and ponds. It does not make people sick if it’s swallowed, but if it goes up a nasal cavity to the brain, it can be deadly.

That is what is believed to have happened to recent high school graduate Lauren Seitz, 18, from Ohio. She died Sunday after visiting the Whitewater Center.

Officials said she was in a raft that overturned and that’s the only time she was underwater that they know of.

“If it happened to that other person, it could happen to me,” said Patrick Duke, a season ticket holder for the Whitewater Center. He visits the center every day. He told Channel 9 the brain infection, possibly stemming from the water at the center, won’t keep him from coming, but he’s glad he knows about it.

“It’s something for me I will definitely think about and maybe ask them some questions about it too," Duke said.

Seitz's funeral will be held Saturday, a church member said.

Health officials can’t say with 100 percent certainty the amoeba was contracted at the Whitewater Center, but the center is working with local, state and federal health agencies in the investigation.

(Lauren Seitz)

As of Wednesday night, it was business as usual at the Whitewater Center. Health officials found out Monday night about the teen’s death linked to the amoeba and say it’s actually common for people to come into contact with it, but rare for people to be infected by it.

“It is frightening. I think people need to take this in context and realize this is a very rare infection,” said Mecklenburg County health director Dr. Marcus Plescia.

The infection is pretty rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been about 35 cases reported in the U.S. in the last decade.

Plescia said today people shouldn’t be discouraged about getting into open water, but should always avoid getting water in the nose.

“When you go swimming in a lake, pond or open water source, there is some risk,” he said.

The infection is not contagious and you cannot be infected by drinking contaminated water. The amoeba is not found in salt water.

Channel 9 learned staff at the Whitewater Center pumped more chlorine into the water after hearing from the health department.

Click on the graphic below for our special section on the amoeba investigation

The water thousands of people raft in at the U.S. National Whitewater Center comes from Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s water source and two wells on the property. Although there’s no routine testing on the water by the county or state, the center disinfects the water with ultraviolet radiation, a filtration system and, periodically, chlorine.

“They are actually diligent about trying to treat the water and make sure the water is very safe,” Plescia said.

But health officials are investigating to find out if the water treatment is enough to kill the brain-eating amoeba.

Dr. Jennifer Cope, with the CDC in Atlanta, plans to test water samples for water quality and temperature and can specifically test for Naegleria fowleri, but said the amoeba may not show up in tests.

“If it’s negative, it doesn’t necessarily say it’s not there. It just says it’s not in that particular water sample that we collected at that particular time. If it’s positive, again, we don’t have the capability to directly link it but it certainly supports that the exposure might have occurred there,” Cope said.

Click on video below to see the latest in the amoeba investigation:

She added because the Whitewater Center is open to the environment, it’s possible the amoeba was in the rafting water due to soil or water runoff.

Channel 9 asked Dr. Plescia why the Whitewater Center will remain open while water samples are collected. He replied, “I think if we found that there was some source of infection or contamination going into the water source we might do that (close the center) but so far we’ve really not had any reason to have any of those concerns.”

“It’s scary. Very scary,” said Eileen Doyle, from Fort Mill. She checked out the Whitewater Center for the first time Wednesday because her grandchildren are coming in a few weeks. Now, she’s not sure if she wants to bring them.

"I’m going to think twice about it. That’s something I wouldn’t want to take a chance on,” Doyle said.

CDC experts said test results will come back within a week. In the meantime, a spokesman with the Whitewater Center told Channel 9 the center will give refunds to customers upon request.

Family and friends in Ohio are mourning the teenager as hundreds attended a vigil at her high school Wednesday night.

Seitz graduated with honors and was a drum major.

In Charlotte, her youth group performed at Aldersgate retirement community and at Camp Dogwood at Lake Norman. They also volunteered at Samaritan's Feet.

Naegleria fowleri infections are quite rare. According to the CDC, fewer than 10 cases have been reported annually in the United States during the last 53 years.

According to the CDC, of 135 people known to be infected with this amoeba in the U.S. since 1962, only three have survived.

This amoeba can cause severe illness up to nine days after exposure.

A person cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking contaminated water and the amoeba is not found in salt water.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department, CDC, Ohio Department of Public Health, Franklin County (Ohio) Public Health Department, the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the North Carolina Division of Public Health are collaborating with further investigation.

In warmer areas where this infection has been more common, recommended precautions include:

  • Limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities.
  • Avoid water-related activities in warm fresh water during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm fresh water areas.

For more information about Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, click here.

The Whitewater Center released the following statement Wednesday:

On June 21, 2016, the U.S. National Whitewater Center was contacted by the Mecklenburg County Health Department and informed that an individual residing in Ohio had deceased from meningitis.

The Center for Disease Control contacted the Health Department because the deceased claimed to have visited the USNWC. The meningitis was preliminarily diagnosed as Naegleria which results from a water born amoeba. The Health Department met with representatives from the USNWC on the afternoon of June 21 to gather information related to the operations of the whitewater system and water treatment.

The following information was provided to the Health Department officials:

The US National Whitewater Center sources its water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells located on the premises. The water contained in the whitewater channels is in a closed loop system comprised entirely of concrete. The water is disinfected with ultraviolet radiation and filtered with a disc filtration system. The UV system is a constant application and treats 12 million gallons of water every 24 hours which is the total volume of the system. In addition to the UV treatment, the Center periodically augments that treatment through the injection of chlorine into the system.

The levels of UV radiation disinfection utilized every day, continuously, at the Center are sufficient to “inactivate” the water born amoeba in question to an effective level of 99.99%.

After contact from the County Health Department, the USNWC released additional chlorine into the system in an abundance of caution. The levels of chlorine used in this additional chlorine-based method equal the effectiveness levels of the UV method and are equal to 3 times the levels used in swimming pools.

The US National Whitewater Center conducts water quality tests every week. 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. Furthermore, the USNWC has requested additional testing specific to this issue in an abundance of caution.

The USNWC is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and the Mecklenburg County Health Department to investigate the matter further.

Police camp for middle school students changes plans after death

Tega Cay police are running a week-long camp for middle school students called Camp Cadet.

The group had planned to go to the Whitewater Center and raft Thursday.

Channel 9 informed Tega Cay police about what may have happened there and they immediately notified parents.

The group of about 30 will go to the Whitewater Center as planned, but they will only do land-based activities.

Police Major Dave Nelson said it was an easy decision to make, but he was shocked to hear about the death.

"You don't think of stuff like that. How many thousands of people go on the lake down here? Or hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

Police used a phone app to notify parents about the death, and the change in plans for the camp.

Whitewater Center CEO released a statement Wednesday night:

I would like to address the recent media reports and concerns expressed by our guests and supporters regarding the US National Whitewater Center. Yesterday afternoon, June 21, 2016, I was informed by health officials that an individual had passed away from meningitis potentially caused by a water born organism. The individual, Lauren Seitz, had visited the USNWC earlier in the month and the USNWC was therefore identified as a possible source of the organism.

On behalf of the USNWC, I wish to express our sincere condolences and sympathies to Lauren and her family. The USNWC is committed to working with health officials and all organizations to investigate in all manners possible the circumstances related to this incident.

At this point, the USNWC and the Centers for Disease Control, the North Carolina Department of Health and the Mecklenburg County Health Department have met to share information. An important point to highlight is that according to the health officials, the source of this organism has not been identified, and in all likelihood, is not identifiable. However, it is equally important to recognize that the organism is commonly found around the world in open bodies of water and the USNWC does have several such bodies of water.

The various health officials have stressed that while the presence of the organism is common, it is extremely rare to become infected by it. The CDC pointed out that there have been approximately 130 cases of the infection dating back to 1937 compared with 11 deaths every day from drowning. This comparison is driving our actions and analysis since the CDC is telling us that one occurrence is extremely rare and a second occurrence is equally rare. In other words, there are no outbreaks. Our focus is always on stressing safety and risk in the most appropriate manner possible.

In that regard, the US National Whitewater Center has always been aware of the significant risks associated with all aspects of the Center and has attempted to use every reasonable means possible to address water quality for safety purposes. Long before the Center was built, we worked with state and local health officials to determine the appropriate measures to use for water quality. Everyone recognized this was not a pool or a natural river and therefore would present its own unique circumstances. We installed and maintain a state of the art filtration system and ultraviolet radiation treatment system that continuously treats the 12 million gallons of water every 24 hours in addition to supplemental chlorine treatments. Our weekly water tests are conducted by a third party laboratory and we have remained in compliance with all standards and guidelines.

Having said all of this, despite every measure we take, there is always a risk of injury or harm based on the very nature of what we do and who we are. There are open bodies of water and they are exposed to naturally occurring organisms such as this particular amoeba. Based on the fact that the CDC has informed us of the extremely low risk of an infection at the Center, along with the water treatment precautions taken, I am very comfortable that the Center remains responsible and reasonable in every respect as it relates to this particular health risk and all other risks associated with the Center.

We will always recognize and stress the risks involved with the Center and we will remain vigilant in working to manage those risks as best as possible. These risks will always exist and we are deeply saddened any time harm occurs as a result. 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. In the meantime, we will be thinking of Lauren and her family and doing everything possible help to understand the facts related to this matter.

Sincerely, Jeffrey T. Wise

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