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CDC Suggests Ways For Whitewater Center To Address Ameba

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made three big points Thursday about a microorganism at the U.S. National Whitewater Center that's likely linked to a woman's death. Two of the points weren't surprising, and the third suggests how the Whitewater Center can reduce the organism's presence.

The microorganism is best known as the brain-eating ameba. But it's actually quite common in warm bodies of water like lakes or rivers. That gets us to the first point: the CDC has confirmed it was in the whitewater channel. 

"We're not surprised that it turned up there," says Dr. Jennifer Cope of the CDC.

She says epidemiologists found higher levels than what they normally see in natural bodies of water, but she offered this context:

"Typically we think of it as being in natural waters," she says, "and the Whitewater Center has posed a kind of unique scenario here where it has features of natural environment, but it is clearly a man-made environment."

Roughly speaking, the Whitewater Center is in between a swimming pool and a churning river. That leads to the second point that's not surprising: its treatment system is not adequate to kill the ameba. 

The county medical director says it wasn't designed to be. The system uses UV radiation and chlorine to target bacteria that are the usual culprits in contaminated water. The ameba does not fit that bill. It poses no risk if you drink it, and the CDC is one of very few places that can even test for it.

Dr. Cope says a large, manmade whitewater channel poses treatment challenges.

"We're trying to gather experts from other fields, like people who design water parks, where there's these larger volumes of water that might need to be treated to potentially address the issue," she says.

That gets to the third point: Dr. Cope says there are ways the Whitewater Center can make its water less conductive to the ameba's growth. That includes making it colder because the ameba likes heat, and reducing algae and other things in the channel that can encourage the ameba's growth.  

There's no estimate yet for when the whitewater channel will reopen. Once it does, Dr. Cope says the ameba could get back in via storm runoff. But although the ameba itself is ubiquitous, the brain infection that can result if water goes up your nose is incredibly rare.

The county medical director puts it this way: there are far more people killed in boating accidents or drownings than by the ameba.