Waterpark owner reacts to parasitic meningitis victim - KATV - Breaking News, Weather and Razorback Sports

Waterpark owner reacts to parasitic meningitis victim

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© KATV's Katherina Yancy © KATV's Katherina Yancy

LITTLE ROCK - A well known water park is closing its doors after 85 years because of a living organism, reportedly in the water. The Arkansas Department of Health confirms a girl who swam at Willow Springs last week has been diagnosed with parasitic meningitis.

The owners found out Thursday, they needed to shut down and that the death of a boy in 2010 is connected with this latest illness.

Mother of child who died of brain-eating bacteria speaks out after girl is diagnosed

The girl is being hospitalized for the brain eating illness. It is a rare infection but not a rare organism.

"We have thousands of people that love Willow Springs." David Ratliff started out as an employee here when he was 12 years old.

Ten-years ago, David and wife, Lou Ann decided to use their retirement money to purchase the property that they say has brought joy to families for generations. "It is hard for us to think about the possibility of a child getting sick out here."

Willow Springs History

Last week a girl who swam at the park got sick. Test results show it is Naegleria. It is commonly found in warm fresh water like lakes, rivers, springs and soil. It eats bacteria found in sand which is what lies at the bottom of the water park. It enters forcefully through the nose like when going down a slide. The parasite travels to the brain and destroys the tissue.

CDC: Naegleria

The Ratliff's goal used to be to see Willow Springs into its 100th year of service. "Most of all I feel bad for the parents who have been sitting at the hospital."

"It is exceedingly rare. A sporadic case occurs one in 33-million." State epidemiologist, Dirk Haselow says two cases in one location is like lightning striking the same spot twice. But says compared to lakes, this water is shallow and heats up faster. "You can't get rid of it. So there is really no option to remediate a place that appears to be a hot spot."

The Ratliff's were just told the 7 year old boy who died of meningitis three years ago is linked to this current case. "I don't know what we would have done different had we had more information. I think we would have done something different. I don't know if it would have changed things." David Ratliff concludes, "I have lived my dream for the past 10 years. I think it is probably over."

There is chlorine in the water at Willow Springs but the Arkansas Department of Health says the facility has too much organic matter for it to reach the levels needed.

The Ratliff's will reopen if it is financially feasible to turn the bottom into concrete - like a pool.


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Press Release

The Arkansas Department of Health Friday confirmed a rare form of parasitic meningitis, possibly caused by a Little Rock water park.

Willow Springs Water Park voluntarily shut down based on this new case and another case from 2010 that may have also originated on their property.

Amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) is caused by an ameba associated with warm rivers, lakes and streams. It can be found in warm freshwater and soil all over the world and can cause a rare but severe brain infection that is usually fatal.

The illness cannot be passed from person-to-person. Typically, it infects people by entering through the nose as people are swimming and diving. Health officials assured the public in a written statement that people cannot be infected by swimming in a properly cleaned, maintained and disinfected swimming pool.

While infection with Naegleria can occur anywhere, it usually occurs in the warm southern U.S.  From 2003-2012, there have only been 31 reported infections in the U.S.  This case is only the sixth case in Arkansas in 40 years.

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.

Infection is very rare. ADH officials said in a press release that if you swam at Willow Springs more than eight days ago and have not shown any symptoms, then you are not at any risk of infection. If you swam there in the past week, they said your risk of infection is still "exceedingly low."

"If you do not have symptoms, there is no test or preventative antibiotic or treatment needed," said State Epidemiologist Dirk Haselow, MD. "Swimming is a healthy summertime activity, and we do not want to discourage people from swimming. 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."

Some additional precautions you can take while swimming during extremely warm periods include:

  • Keep your head out of the water
  • Use nose clips or hold the nose shut
  • Avoid stirring up dirt or sand at the bottom of shallow freshwater areas

More information about Naegleria fowleri and safe swimming can be found on the CDC website by clicking here.

Willow Springs Water Park is the oldest water park in Little Rock, first opening for swimming in 1928. The park was used mainly by the servicemen from Camp Robinson which had just recently opened.


The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) would like to remind the public that infection from naegleria fowleri, or parasitic meningitis, is very rare. If you swam at Willow Springs Water Park more than 8 days ago, you are NOT at risk for the infection. Even if you swam at Willow Springs in the past week, your risk of infection is exceedingly low. 

"If you do not have symptoms, there is no test or preventive antibiotic or treatment needed," said Dirk Haselow, MD, State Epidemiologist at ADH.