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Officials: Ohio teen might have contracted fatal brain infection at Whitewater Center

Posted June 22

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— North Carolina health officials said the June 19 death of an Ohio resident was caused by an infection likely contracted at the U.S. National Whitewater Center near Charlotte.

The suspected cause of death is being attributed to primary amebic meningoencephalitis, an infection caused by a single-cell organism that can be fatal if forced up the nose, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The infection affects and ultimately destroys the brain.

WCMH, NBC's affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, identified the victim as an 18-year-old girl from Westerville, Ohio, a suburb just north of the state's capital. The girl's only known underwater exposure was when riding a raft that overturned at the Whitewater Center.

The amoeba is naturally present in warm, freshwater lakes during the summer. But infections caused by Naegleria fowleri are rare: fewer than 10 cases have been reported annually in the United States over the last 53 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Doctors with the CDC and the Mecklenburg County Health Department said the National Whitewater Center is testing its water. Mecklenberg's Public Health Director Marcus Plescia said the center is not regulated and inspected like a public pool and is more similar to swimming in a natural pond or lake.

"It's frightening; I think people need to take in context and realize it is a rare infection," Plescia said Wednesday. "We think the Whitewater Center is as safe as any body of open water."

Fewer than 10 cases of primary amebic meningoencephalitis are reported in the United Sates each year, but cases are almost always fatal.

Though infection is rare, the organism is relatively common in bodies of warm freshwater, like lakes and rivers.

"I don't think you can live your life in fear, and when it's your time to go home, it's your time to go home," said tourist George Stonecipher.

Health officials said anyone concerned should wear nose clips in open water.

The Ohio teen was on a trip with other people, but no one else has shown symptoms of the infection.


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