Local News

Boy Dies After Contracting Disease While Swimming At Falls Lake

Posted July 30, 2003 5:23 a.m. EDT

— Officials with the North Carolina Departments of Health and Human Services and Environment and Natural Resources are advising North Carolinians to take precautions when swimming.

In particular, they say that swimmers should hold their nose or use nose plugs when jumping or diving into bodies of freshwater or unchlorinated pools, especially during the hot summer.

This advice follows the death of 12-year-old Sean Stayton, who contracted an extremely rare disease while swimming at Falls Lake in Wake County earlier this month.

The boy's death was caused by meningo-encephalitis (inflammation of the brain and its lining) from infection with the ameba Naegleria fowleri. The disease, Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM), is extremely rare, with only a few cases reported annually in the United States.

State Health Director Leah Devlin said the organism that causes PAM is found almost everywhere in warm climates.

"The organism isn't related to pollution or dirty water," she said. "It is commonly found in moist soil and water – particularly warm, bodies of fresh water, such as lakes, rivers, and hot springs, and unchlorinated pools. It may be aerosolized into the air. In some highly unusual circumstances, people can be infected by the organism."

Dr. Jean-Marie Maillard, a medical epidemiologist with the Division of Public Health, cautioned that the disease is extremely rare, despite the fact that the ameba is commonly found in the environment.

"There have been only about a hundred cases reported in the U.S. since the disease was first identified in 1965," he said. "It appears that diving and jumping into bodies of freshwater are the most likely methods for the organism to be driven up the nose and into the brain. That's why we caution people to wear nose plugs or hold their noses when diving or jumping into the water. It's also important to keep in mind that there are other much more significant risks in water. Although North Carolina has recorded just four cases of PAM since 1991, North Carolina averages about a hundred drownings annually."

"As a result of this case, we are also reminding physicians and other health care providers to consider PAM in the evaluation of individuals with meningitis, a disease that is usually caused by viruses and bacteria," Maillard said. "Although PAM is usually fatal in those that contract it, a small number of persons have survived when the disease was diagnosed and treated early."

Although the risk of infection is very small, officials with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation warned that people should be careful when swimming anywhere.

"We realize that this tragic death is not related to a particular area," Ron Bowling, safety officer for the state parks system, said. "It is related to an organism that rarely affects humans, but we want to make sure folks realize it is a possibility, especially when diving or jumping into the water during the hot summer months."