Willow Springs Water Park, touted in advertisements as “making great memories since 1928,” was forced to close indefinitely this week after health officials in Little Rock, Ark., tracked a rare “brain-eating” amoeba to its waters. The case is believed to be the second time in the past three years that a child visiting the water park has contracted the infection.
The victim, identified by local media as 12-year-old Kali Hardig, was in critical condition on Monday at Children’s Hospital in Little Rock following what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed was exposure to the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, a rare form of parasitic meningitis associated with warm rivers, lakes and streams. Based on its continuing investigation, the Arkansas Department of Health said the most likely source of infection was Willow Springs.
“There was another case of [primary amoebic meningoencephalitis] possibly connected with Willow Springs in 2010. Based on the occurrence of two cases of this rare infection in association with the same body of water and the unique features of the park, the ADH has asked the owner of Willow Springs to voluntarily close the water park to ensure the health and safety of the public,” the state's health department said on Friday.
“We, David and Lou Ann Ratliff, as general management of Willow Springs Water Park, have received new information regarding Naegleria fowleri and have elected to close the park as of July 25 at the request of the Arkansas Department of Health,” the water park's management said in a statement. “Though the odds of contracting Naegleria are extremely low, they are just not good enough to allow our friends or family to swim.”
The Ratliffs said they would take time to determine the feasibility of installing a solid bottom to the park’s main lake, which has a sandy bottom that officials believe could have contributed to the problem.
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The prognosis appears grim for the Arkansas girl fighting the rare brain-eating disease as there have been only two documented cases of survival, in California and Mexico. The girl’s mother told local station KLRT-TV that she had made T-shirts for family and friends with the bold number “3” beneath the word’s “Kali’s Krew,” in hopes that her daughter will be the third person to survive the nearly always fatal disease.
The CDC in Atlanta said Naegleria fowleri typically infects people by entering the body through the nose as they swim or dive. The disease can't be passed person-to-person nor can individuals be infected by swimming in properly cleaned, maintained and disinfected swimming pools, the agency added.
While infection with Naegleria can occur anywhere, the CDC said that infections occur most frequently in warm, Southern states, particularly when the waters heat up to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the amoebas are most active. There have been 31 reported cases in the U.S. over the past decade, and this is the sixth case in Arkansas in more than 40 years. The last known person in the state to contract the disease was 7-year-old Davian Briggs, who died shortly after swimming at Willow Springs Water Park.
“The risk of infection from Naegleria in Arkansas is exceedingly low," the state's epidemiologist Dirk Haselow said in a statement.
He noted that the first symptoms start one to seven days after initial infection and said anyone who swam at Willow Springs more than eight days before it closed wasn't at risk. Early symptoms include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting, while later symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. Once symptoms begin, the disease typically progresses rapidly.
“Swimming is a healthy summertime activity, and we do not want to discourage people from swimming,” Haselow added. “If concerned about Naegleria, avoid swimming, diving or other activities that push water up the nose, especially in natural waters when temperatures are high and water levels are low.”
Other precautions include using a nose clip and keeping your head out of the water. Stirring up dirt and sand at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas also puts swimmers at a higher risk for this rare amoeba.