In June of 1998, Georgia health officials were notified that a number of children had become ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections and were hospitalized in Atlanta-area hospitals. Public health investigators interviewed victims’ families and learned that all had become ill after visiting the White Water Water Park. The Georgia Department of Health eliminated other possible sources of exposure, such as contaminated food, and determined that contact with and ingestion of pool water infected most of the primary cases.
Twenty-six culture-confirmed E. coli cases were identified, and while health officials hypothesized that the outbreak was considerably larger, the outbreak size was never known due to under-reporting of illnesses. Forty percent of children under five years of age with recognized E. coli infections were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Cases appeared on four different days, and all cases occurred within a period of eight days. The largest number of infections took place on June 12, and the second-largest number of infections occurred on June 17, which led health officials to believe the E. coli was re-introduced to the park environment on June 17. The PFGE pattern, or “genetic fingerprint” of the strain of bacteria isolated from ill individuals was indistinguishable between visitors to the park on June 11 and 12 and June 17.
Investigators considered three potential causes of contamination in their outbreak analysis: repeat contamination of the park by an E. coli-infected person, persistence of bacteria in pool water overnight due to low chlorine levels, or persistence of bacteria in the pool environment but not in the water. Low chlorine levels in the suspect pools were detected on all days of exposure, and it was never determined whether one of the pools had chlorine in it at the time when the exposures occurred.
Marler Clark represented seven children and their families in litigation against the water park, and settled the last of the cases in December of 2000.