Health expert: ‘No point’ testing water at Kennywood’s Raging Rapids after parasite claim

December 3, 2017 GMT

The parasite that a Pittsburgh man claims wreaked havoc on his left eye following a Kennywood Park water ride is so common in the environment, county health officials opted not to test the water in the Raging Rapids ride when they learned about the incident.

The decision came because infections caused by the parasite are extremely rare, according to medical experts.

“It’s called an environmental organism, meaning it’s pretty much everywhere, in dirt and water,” Dr. Karen Hacker, Director of the Allegheny County Health Department said Friday about the parasite microsporidia. “We do believe we will never be able to directly connect this situation to this particular source. This is quite a rare situation.”

The health department is investigating the July 2 incident, in which Robert Trostle of Squirrel Hill claims water from the ride splashed in his left eye. He filed a lawsuit against Kennywood, claiming the incident caused a multitude of problems and he was forced to undergo surgery in his eye. The lawsuit says he was diagnosed with a condition called microsporidia keratitis. Trostle still suffers from inflammation, blurry vision, redness and pain, according to the lawsuit.

Hacker said her department consulted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and determined that testing the water would not advance the case.

“The challenge for testing the water would be that if we did not find it (microsporidia) that doesn’t mean it’s not there, and it’s not helpful if you do find it because you have to identify a specific species,” she said. “There’s no point.”

The parasite in question has 1,200 species, and only 15 can cause any type of harm to humans, Hacker said.

“Though it may be possible to acquire this type of infection through exposure during an amusement park water ride, it is obviously very rare considering how many individuals are splashed with water on rides and how infrequent this type of infection occurs,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist in Pittsburgh and senior associate for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “In order to establish causation, it will be important to understand the patient’s medical history, his other activities, whether he wears contact lenses — which is the most common means microsporida cause eye infections — and which specific microsporidia was isolated.”

The majority of people contracting such a parasite wear contact lenses, according to the CDC.

Hacker said health department officials interviewed Trostle, but the investigation remains open in case the CDC can extract a specific species type from Trostle’s eye.

“We have been talking to the CDC on and off since the summer,” Hacker said.

Brittany Behm, a spokeswoman for CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, confirmed the consultation but declined further comment. She said the CDC does not have statistics on microsporidia keratitis infections because they are so uncommon.

Danielle Staresinic, an optometrist and owner of Lawrenceville Vision Care in Pittsburgh, said she’s maybe seen one fungal eye infection in her entire career.

“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s incredibly rare,” she said. “Nothing like this shows up at our practice.”

After hearing about the Kennyood case, Dr. Peter Veldkamp, a UPMC infectious disease physician, said he did a bit of research and found review in a microbiology journal that cited 22 reported cases of microsporidia keratitis worldwide in one year about 10 years ago.

“This situation is very unfortunate but incredibly rare,” he said. “It’s most common in people with immunosuppressing medical conditions.”

But Trostle’s attorney, Alan Perer, said Friday that his client was in good health when he became afflicted.

“It’s really upsetting,” Perer said. “This is the county health department, and you have a victim of a potential disease, and they won’t give us any concrete information.”

Kennywood spokesman Nick Paradise said he cannot comment on pending litigation, adding, “We follow all regulations required by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture — the agency responsible for inspecting and certifying amusement rides — and often go above and beyond what is required by state law.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.