In a story that’s receiving national attention, an Arkansas water park has closed its doors after a 12-year-old girl who swam there was diagnosed with an ultra-rare case of amoebic meningoencephalitis. That’s the medical term for an infection of Naegleria fowleri, a deadly brain-eating amoeba that inhabits warm freshwater bodies. The girl likely contracted the infection while swimming at the park’s freshwater lake.
This is the second case in three years linked to Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock. From 2003 to 2012 there were only 31 infections total in the United States (source: CDC). The water park, which has been in business since 1928, shut down on Friday in response to the news. There’s no word on when (if ever) it will open again.
Like something out of a horror movie, Naegleria fowleri enters through a swimmer’s nose and makes its way to the brain. There it begins devouring tissue, eventually causing brain swelling and death. The infection is fatal in 99% of recorded cases – only two people have ever been known to survive it.
It’s the sort of story that makes everyone cringe, but particularly those in the water park industry. The story has gotten widespread coverage, with most headlines featuring the words water park in the headline. But while there’s a legitimate risk of illness at any water park, this gruesome infection isn’t a concern at the vast majority of them.
According to the CDC, Naegleria fowleri lives in stagnant freshwater. It’s not likely to be found at a chemically treated public pool or hot tub, and even less likely to exist in the constantly moving waters of a typical water park. On top of that, the amoeba grows best at water temperatures of 115 degrees or more, making the risk of infection highest in southern states during the hottest days of summer. In short, the conditions at Willow Springs are highly unusual compared to most water parks, and unfortunately, uniquely suited to this organism.
You can limit your risk of infection by Naegleria fowleri by simply avoiding hot, stagnant water. If you do swim under those conditions, wearing a nose clip may offer some protection. However, given the rarity of this illness, it’s probably most sensible to view this as a freak occurrence that can happen to anyone.