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‘Brain-eating amoeba’ blamed in teen’s death following church trip

It's referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba." Naegleria fowleri resides in warm freshwater, hot springs and poorly maintained swimming pools. When the single-celled organism enters a person's body through the nose, it can cause a deadly infection that leads to destruction of brain tissue.

These infections are extremely rare; 138 people have been infected since 1962, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But over the weekend, the amoeba claimed another victim when an 18-year-old died from a meningitis infection caused by N. fowleri, said health officials in North Carolina.

Lauren Seitz of Westerville, Ohio, died from a suspected case of primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), and officials are investigating whether she contracted the infection while whitewater rafting in Charlotte during a church trip, the Charlotte Observer reported.

The N. fowleri infection "resulted in her developing a case of meningitis ... and inflaming of the brain and surrounding tissues, and unfortunately she died of this condition," Mecklenburg County Health Department director Marcus Plescia told reporters Wednesday.

Plescia said that, while they were still gathering information from health officials in Ohio, they do know one of the stops Seitz's group made was to the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

"We are continuing to work with health officials to examine the facts involved in Lauren’s case, although we have been told repeatedly that little additional information will be determinable specific to this occasion," the center's chief executive, Jeffrey Wise, said in a statement.

Seitz belonged to the youth music ministry group at Church of the Messiah United Methodist Church in Westerville. Senior pastor Jim Wilson told NBC4 that she was one of 32 young people who traveled in Ohio and to West Virginia and North Carolina to sing at churches and nursing homes.

Wilson said the group had one day of recreation: whitewater rafting in North Carolina.

“We will deeply miss her, but we were so blessed by her presence and her gifts that she just shared in a beautiful way,” Wilson told the station. “She was a special person.”

Seitz likely became infected while out of Ohio, Mitzi Kline, spokewoman for the Franklin County Department of Public Health in Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch.

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The U.S. National Whitewater Center is a locally owned nonprofit that sources water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells. The water, contained in a concrete, closed-loop system, is disinfected with ultraviolet radiation and filtered with a disc system, according to the center. Chlorine is also used periodically.

The center remains open. But it said it has released additional chlorine "into the system in an abundance of caution."

Plescia said the water at the center “is as safe as any body of water,” the Observer reported. “Any time you go into a lake or pond, there are things in the water that can cause illnesses.”

While cases of N. fowleri infection are extremely rare, they make news as they seem to often impact healthy young  people. And given the amoeba's prevalence in water, it's not clear why some people become infected and others don't.

Last summer, a 14-year-old boy died days after swimming in a Minnesota lake. Doctors initially thought he died of an amoeba-related infection, but they later determined his meningitis was brought on my a skateboard accident.

The previous summer, a 9-year-old Kansas girl died from a suspected N. fowleri infection.

Did ‘brain-eating amoeba’ kill a 14-year-old swimmer?

People cannot be infected by drinking contaminated water. Rare infections can happen when such water enters the nose.

"The risk of Naegleria fowleri infection is very low. There have been 37 reported infections in the U.S. in the 10 years from 2006 to 2015, despite millions of recreational water exposures each year," according to the CDC. "By comparison, in the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, there were more than 34,000 drowning deaths in the U.S."

Most of the cases in the United States involve contaminated recreational water, according to the CDC. Between 2006 and 2015, three people were infected by contaminated tap water used for nasal irrigation.

Infections typically happen during summer months, and in Southern states.

Seitz had just graduated from Westerville South High School, where she was a drum major in the school's marching band, the Dispatch reported.

The band held a memorial and candlelight vigil this week.

"They do not prepare you for this type of thing in school," band director John Laswell wrote on Facebook. "This was an enormous loss for the band but also to the Westerville community and family. Lauren just graduated in May, and was one of the most talented, humble, and caring students I've ever taught."

[This post has been updated to clarify the cause of death of a 14-year-old in Minnesota.]

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