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Death from Brain-Eating Amoeba a Tragic Reminder of Risks in Outdoor Facilities

11 Oct, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

While many health concerns, from concussions to cardiac issues, has been overshadowed lately, a recent tragic development is serving as a reminder that risks need to be managed everywhere.

A six-year-old boy in Texas died of the so-called brain-eating amoeba after playing in a splash pad – a warning to all venues to remain vigilant. According to Athletic Business, six-year-old Josiah McIntyre died Sept. 8 after he contracted the Naegleria fowleri amoeba,which attacks the brain. After playing at the splash pad, McIntyre began having headaches, vomiting and a fever. Relatives said the boy was tested for strep, COVID-19 and other diseases before testing positive for the amoeba and by that time it was too late.

It’s certainly not the first time death has occurred because of amoeba contamination at a recreational facility. In 2016, 18-year-old, Lauren Seitz of Westerville, Ohio, became infected by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which attacks the brain, when her raft overturned as she and friends visited the US National Whitewater Center near Charlotte while on a church group trip. She died a week after the incident. Two years later, a lawsuit was filed against a park and rec department when an individual died after being infected while swimming in a park lake in Indiana. (The suit was ultimately settled in favor of the parks district – but the ripple effect has brought continued concerns among open-water sports organizers and venue operators).

According to CBS Newsthe amoeba is common in lakes and other kinds of warm, fresh water, yet it's very rare that it will make anyone sick, said Dr. Thomas Kerkering, chief of infectious diseases at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia. Only 138 people were stricken by the disease between 1962 and 2015, according to the CDC. In 2017, only a few other occurrences had been documented.

The chance someone becomes infected seems to be just that – chance. Unfortunately, however, when the amoeba is present, when someone is infected – and when a fatality occurs, it is justifiably a high-profile event.

Compounding the problems surrounding the death of the Texas child was the fact that multiple water sources from the Brazosport Water Authority supply had the contaminating amoeba. According to the local ABC News affiliate, three water samples out of 11 taken tested positive for genetic material related to naegleria fowleri, including a test of a water hose bib at the boy's home as well as the splash pad where he had played.

The possibility that the local water system was contaminated prompted state and city officials to flush and disinfect the system; the CDC noted, in the meantime, that drinking contaminated water does not cause the infection. (Water must be forced up the nose of a person and in many cases, whether or not a person becomes infected is almost random, since other children playing at the same splash pad were unaffected by the amoeba).

While in many parts of the country, water parks, swimming pools and splash pads are closing down for the season, areas in the South, Southeast and West enjoy more temperate weather and can host outdoor water activities longer, if not all year long., meaning operators of such facilities need to be vigilant about stopping the amoeba. The fact that open-water swimming is on the uptick means event owners should investigate the risk of waterborne disease in venues being used.

While there are measures individuals can take to avoid the amoeba, and while scientists have worked on disinfection measures, there is no treatment or cure.

Planners may also wish to consult with an event insurance company to plan for any additional coverage that may be necessary.

According to Sports Destination Management contributing writer Lorena Hatfield, marketing manager with K&K Insurance Groups, which provides coverage for sports events, planners should ascertain first, that the coverage needed is available. K&K, for example, she noted, “does not offer coverage for water parks, but we do have programs with water risks such as camps and campgrounds. K&K does offer coverage for this type of exposure under our transmissible pathogens coverage. If a claim were to be brought against an organization that had purchased this coverage, they would be insured. It’s important to know that this is not standard coverage offered in the general marketplace.”

In addition, it may be advisable for planners to consult with their organization’s legal counsel who can review whether adequate warning is being provided to athletes on registration materials and other information.

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