LITTLE ROCK — The state Health Department on Friday confirmed a case of a rare form of parasitic meningitis and the likely source of the infection, Willow Springs Water Park, closed its doors.
The Health Department said it confirmed the case of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis — a very rare form of meningitis caused by an amoeba associated with warm rivers, lakes and streams — with the assistance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Department spokesman Ed Barham said the victim was hospitalized in the past few days. He declined to provide any personal information about the victim or the person’s condition, although he did say contraction of PAM is usually fatal.
From 2003-2012, there have been 31 reported infections in the U.S. Two of the victims survived. This case is only the sixth in Arkansas in 40 years. The other five were fatal, Health Department spokesman Ed Barham said.
The organism that causes PAM is known as Naegleria fowleri. It can cause a rare but severe brain infection.
While infection with Naegleria can occur anywhere, it usually occurs in the warm southern U.S. Health officials say Naegleria cannot be passed from person to person. The organism typically infects people by entering the body through the nose as they are swimming and diving.
Health officials identified Willow Springs Water Park as the likely source of the infection based on confirmation of another case of PAM possibly connected with Willow Springs in 2010.
Health officials said individuals cannot be infected with Naegleria by swimming in properly cleaned, maintained and disinfected swimming pools. Willow Springs Water Park, located just east of Little Rock, is a three-acre, sand-bottom spring-fed lake. According to its website, the fresh water is pH balanced, chemically treated, chlorinated and routinely monitored by the health department.
Barham said the owners of the park responded immediately to the department’s request to voluntarily close the facility, making it unnecessary for the agency to seek a court order to shut down the park.
"Though the odds of contracting Naegleria are extremely low, they are just not good enough to allow our friends or family to swim," Willow Springs owners David and Lou Ann Ratliff said in a statement.
The Ratliffs said they would determine the feasibility of installing a solid bottom to the lake but would not reopen as a sand-bottom lake.
The health department said anyone who swam in Willow Springs Water Park more than eight days ago is not at risk for the infection and that for anyone who swam at the park in the past week the risk of infection is "exceedingly low."
"If you do not have symptoms, there is no test or preventive antibiotic or treatment needed," said state epidemiologist Dr. Dirk Haselow.
Barham said health department officials have reviewed studies that put the chance of contracting the infection at 1 in 32 million. Officials took that rarity into consideration in not ordering the water park closed three years ago, but a second case caused officials to reconsider, he said.
"There’s only been two other clusters of two, one in Minnesota and one in Florida," Barham said. "With a second (here), there becomes a more compelling reason to close."
Health officials said the first symptoms of PAM start one to seven days after initial infection. Early symptoms may include headache, fever, nausea or vomiting. Later symptoms can include stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations. After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly.
"Swimming is a healthy summertime activity, and we do not want to discourage people from swimming," Haselow said. "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 to take while swimming during extremely warm periods include keeping your head out of the water; using nose clips or holding the nose shut; and avoiding stirring up dirt or sand at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas.