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Federal Data Shows a 249 Percent Increase in Legionnaires Disease Bacteria

Nov 12, 2015

Investigators with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say there has been a 249 percent increase in the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease between 2000 and 2011.

The public health investigators also found that at least one in every 10 people infected with Legionella pneumophila, a form of pneumonia, dies of the disease, Newsday reports.

According to the CDC, blacks were more likely to be infected than whites, and the investigators posit that this may be due to a disparity in housing. Blacks more often live in older and poorly maintained multi-resident structures. The bacteria are frequently found in air conditioning equipment and cooling towers, and can also develop in hot tubs, hot water tanks and decorative fountains. In summer 2015, 13 people in the Bronx died in a Legionnaires' outbreak.

New York State health officials have mandated routine testing of air conditioning and water systems at schools, hospitals, dialysis centers and other sensitive sites in an effort to prevent future outbreaks. Newsday reports that cooling systems in several Long Island school districts were colonized by Legionella bacteria.

Dr. Pascal Imperato, a former New York City health commissioner and founding dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said that though the CDC data is startling, it is consistent with what public health officials already knew. "We have known for quite some time that about 20 percent of the general population will have antibodies to this organism," said Imperato. The bacteria are ubiquitous, he said. Even when water-containing structures are cleaned very well, the organism can reappear soon afterward, Imperato said.

Imperato, who was not connected to the CDC research, explained that the presence of antibodies in the blood suggests that a significant segment of the population has been exposed to Legionnaires, but most of them are probably unaware of it. Legionella bacteria thrive in air conditioning systems and cooling towers and can cause infection when inhaled in droplets of water. Older people and people with impaired immune systems are more likely to become infected than are healthy younger individuals.

Legionnaires' disease can be hard to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other types, according to the CDC. Common symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • High fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches

These symptoms usually begin two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria.

The CDC investigators found not only that the incidence of the bacteria has risen, but also that the bacteria are more prevalent in some parts of the country, according to Newsday. New York has the highest rates of infection nationwide. State health officials estimate the bacteria infect 200 to 800 people a year.

The 249 percent jump in disease prevalence occurred between 2000 and 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, half the people included as part of the research were admitted to hospital intensive care units. All told, there were 1,426 cases from Jan. 1, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2013, Newsday reports.

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