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What We Do And Don't Know About 'Brain-Eating Ameba' In Charlotte

Michael Tomsic
CDC Dr. Jennifer Cope and Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia talk to reporters about the ameba.

Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are testing for a microscopic organism at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. That's after a young woman died recently from a rare infection caused by that organism.

The organism is best known as the “brain-eating ameba,” but that name requires some context.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia says it's actually pretty common to find it in warm, open bodies of water like lakes or ponds. 

“But it's very uncommon for people to develop this kind of infection with it,” he says. “That's something we just don't understand: why do most people come into contact and have no problems, but sometimes people develop this.”

Credit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
aegleria fowleri (commonly referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba" or "brain-eating ameba"), is a free-living microscopic ameba, (single-celled living organism).

Swallowing it is no problem. But if it gets up your nose, it's possible for it to cause an extremely rare brain infection.

An 18-year-old woman from Ohio recently died of that infection. As of now, her only known exposure to open water was rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Dr. Jennifer Cope is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She says the CDC is here to help with testing.

“We would be looking at general water quality, basic things like water temperature and turbidity,” she says. “Also, we have the ability to test specifically for the ameba, Naegleria fowleri.”

That's its scientific name. Dr. Cope says even with the tests, they may not be able to confirm a direct link to the Whitewater Center.

That's a point Dr. Plescia emphasized, too. He says for now, it's just as safe as any other body of water.

“Unless we find some specific problem at the Whitewater Center, the Whitewater Center isn't any different than any lake or pond or other open body, and we're not going to close every lake and pond,” he says. “We're going to say this is similar to the risk that you would have any other place, and we'll make sure people are aware of that.”

Here's some perspective on that risk from the CDC: only a handful of people are infected every year in all of the United States.    

The CDC could have test results later this week.