Officials: Ohio teen dies from brain-eating amoeba after visit to Whitewater Center

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An 18-year-old girl from Ohio has died from a suspected brain-eating amoeba after a visit to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, according to health officials.

LATEST: CDC: Whitewater Center filtration systems 'inadequate' to prevent amoeba that killed teen

Mecklenburg County and North Carolina State health officials have been told by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Lauren Elisabeth Seitz, 18, of Westerville, Ohio passed away Sunday, June 19, due to
Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, an infection caused by Naegleria fowleri.

Read Lauren's Obituary Here

The amoeba is naturally present in warm lakes during the summer and does not cause illness if swallowed, but can be fatal if forced up the nose, according to the CDC.

Brain-eating amoeba: What you need to know

The NC DHHS says the only known underwater exposure was believed to be when Seitz was riding in a raft with several others from her church group that overturned at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

UPDATE: U.S. National Whitewater Center tests positive for brain-eating amoeba, officials say

Seitz was drum major of the marching band at Westerville South High School. A memorial and prayer vigil were held for her in the Westerville Central High School band room at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the band director. It ended with a candlelight vigil on the practice field. Counselors were on hand.

According to the CDC, fewer than 10 cases have been reported annually in the United State during the last 53 years. This ameba can cause severe illness up to nine days after exposure. A person cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking contaminated water and the ameba 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.

During a press conference Wednesday, health officials said they have been in contact with the U.S. National Whitewater Center and they've reported that they test the water frequently.

In a statement released to FOX46 Charlotte, the U.S. National Whitewater center said that they source their water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells located on the premises. The statement went on to say that the water is disinfected and filtered with a disc filtration system. 

The USNWC has requested additional testing in an abundance of caution.

Full copy of USNWC CEO statement below: 

A Letter From Our CEO:

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.

Jeffrey T. Wise

A full copy of the USNWC statement is posted below:

On June 21st, 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 21st 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 2 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.