Legionnaires’ Disease: Are we under attack!?

Sarah Howard | October 9, 2015

In the past 10 years, the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the United States has gone up more than 200 percent. Recent Legionnaires’ outbreaks in New York City (NY), Quincy (IL), and San Quentin State prison (CA) have sent health departments scrambling for answers, caused state senators to request for federal assistance, and caused more than 20 deaths in just the last few months.

To date, NYC’s final infection count was over 120 people, of which, 12 had died. Quincy’s numbers are still being calculated but at this point more than 50 have been infected and 9 have died. Finally, in San Quentin, over 100 inmates are being evaluated after 7 confirmed cases had been found in their population. After an outbreak in Pittsburgh at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in 2012, six elderly veterans were taken by the disease. In just the past month, a recent outbreak at a VA in Pittsburgh has infected six people with no casualties to date.

These stories beg the question: what is Legionnaires’ disease and how do we alleviate the problem? A fact sheet on the disease posted in conjunction to this blog may answer some of your questions but what the fact sheet does not help explain is the lack of concern over the issue.

Besides a few public service announcements in NY, there has been scant national media attention on the issue. What is worse about the recent disease outbreaks is that they adversely affect the elderly and prisoner populations; groups who are uniquely disadvantaged. Elderly populations that are in the hospital are an already ailing population that has to deal with a variety of issues; Legionnaires’ disease preys upon immunocompromised individuals and those with chronic lung issues. Prison populations are at risk because they utilize the same water system for almost all water-necessary activities so if the bacteria is given the chance to grow, major issues can begin to spread to the rest of the population.

So what do we do? New statutes are being put into place in New York to register all water-cooling towers so that quarterly tests for the bacterium are completed. Violators could face thousands of dollars in fines and could spend time in jail if someone becomes seriously sick or dies.

But will these changes begin to disseminate to the rest of the states? Or will another big outbreak have to occur before other Health Departments begin to mobilize? As Public Health professionals, we cannot react to an issue, we must act now to prevent the possibility of future issues. Quarterly cooling tower checks would be not only be a benefit for preventing Legionnaires’ disease but other water-borne diseases as well. Future Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks can be prevented if we decide to work together rather than act separately. To steal Smokey the Bear’s line, “Only we can prevent Legionnaires’ disease.” –Post by Jake Tanumihardjo; edited by PJ Mitchell

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