Legionnaires’ disease now a bigger threat than ever

Not even The Happiest Place on Earth is safe from Legionnaires’ disease.

Two Disneyland cooling towers were recently found to contain the bacteria responsible for the illness, and 11 park visitors have been diagnosed with this potentially deadly type of pneumonia.

Legionnaires’ also struck four other people in the Anaheim, California, area, and two of them died from the infection.

So, here we are… over three decades since we first learned about the risk of inhaling invisible water droplets contaminated with Legionella pneumophila bacteria… and it’s still killing.

And what makes this especially hard to fathom is that it can (for the most part) be prevented — if only some basic precautions are followed.

Some of these are steps you can take personally — and they’re especially important if you’re a smoker, are suffering from any kind of respiratory condition, or are simply over 50.

Something in the air

It may seem hard to believe, but Legionnaires’ is actually on the rise. In fact, the CDC is even calling it an “emerging disease.”

The source of the bacteria found at Disneyland is one of the more common places where it thrives — water cooling systems that become contaminated and then transmit the microbes out into the environment, contained in tiny particles of water.

So, even if the air seems perfectly clear, you may be inhaling them without realizing it.

The locales hit by Legionnaires’ disease this year have included hotels in Texas (one outbreak being from the swimming pool and hot tub), Las Vegas, and apartment complexes in Manhattan.

But perhaps the worst examples of how sloppy maintenance can wind up killing are the cases that occur in hospitals.

As I told you this past spring, for the very first time, the CDC decided to take a look at how many patients are coming down with the illness in healthcare facilities. And guess what? It basically had no idea.

While known incidents of Legionnaires’ disease must be reported to that agency, it’s voluntary for those reports to state where they believed people may have been exposed.

Nevertheless, the agency did manage to discover that of 20 states and one metro area (New York City) where it was able to pin down exposure, around 20 percent of the cases were “definitely associated” with a healthcare facility.

And of the patients who acquired this respiratory illness in that setting (while being treated for something else entirely!), 1 out of 4 died from it.

At the time that report came out, a CDC official said that “safe water (in cooling towers) at a healthcare facility might not be on a physician’s mind,” but it’s an “essential element” of good care.

Well, thanks for nothing, CDC! It’s not like we can ask for a maintenance report if we have to go to the hospital.

While we have no control over how healthcare facilities, hotels, or even places like Disneyland clean and disinfect air conditioning systems and anything else that holds water, there are some important precautions we can take on our own.

For example:

  • Despite how inviting that hot tub or whirlpool might look in a hotel or spa, that’s the kind of environment this bacteria love. If you have any kind of respiratory problems, especially COPD, don’t risk it!
  • Routinely clean and allow to fully air dry any appliance in your home that holds water — such as a humidifier.
  • If you’re still using the same showerhead that came with your house, it’s probably time for a new one! Legionella bacteria in showerheads was found to be the cause of an outbreak in a South Dakota hospital several years ago.

Along with taking steps to prevent yourself and your family from coming down with this dangerous illness, knowing the symptoms is also important, since starting up on the proper antibiotic therapy ASAP is vital. (And yes, this is one of those cases in which antibiotics actually are necessary.)

Those can include high fever, chills, cough, headache, chest pain, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea, and confusion.

While a simple chest X-ray may be able to diagnose pneumonia, it can’t rule out this illness. Your doctor needs to give you a very specific urine or mucus test to check for Legionnaires’ disease.

And remember, if you’re not given the proper diagnostic test, you could be in jeopardy of not getting the right treatment in time to keep this persistent plaque from spiraling out of control.

“Legionnaires’ disease outbreak looms over Disneyland” CBS News, November 16, 2017, cbsnews.com