Not one, but two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, believed unrelated, have been identified in IL this past week. One of these outbreaks might be connected to the Wal-Mart in Johnsburg, the other is at the Warren Barr Nursing Home. Here’s what you need to know about the Legionnaires Disease Illinois Outbreaks.
But, what is it?
Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia which does not generally spread person to person, but rather by inhaling water droplets inhabited by the bacteria called Legionella pneumophila. While the name evokes images of rank upon rank of Roman soldiers in sandals and red plumed helmets, the bacteria gets its name not from overwhelming numbers and organization, but from the event where the CDC discovered it: an American Legion convention in 1976, after which 200 people were hospitalized and 34 died. The air conditioning system in the hotel was originally believed to be what spread the disease, but it may also have been spread by the water in the hotel.
Usually, the Legionella bacteria are spread by breathing mist or aspiration. Aspiration is when you choke in such a way that spittle goes “down the wrong pipe” and goes into your lungs instead of taking your esophagus on a merry slide down to your stomach where it will be summarily dealt with by your stomach juices. Legionella bacteria can be spread by air conditioning systems, sprinkler systems, humidifiers, hot tubs, choking in the shower, or other complex water systems which have not been properly cleaned and disinfected. Since discovery in 1976, the statistics have gotten a little bit more favorable for survival, but are still rough: According to the CDC, 1 in 10 people who contract legionnaires’ die. There is an estimated 10,000 to 18,000 of people in the United States become infected by the Legionella bacteria each year. Because of the severity of Legionnaire’s disease, in the Illinois Department of Public Health requires cases to be reported to within 7 days so that they have a chance of determining the source and containing the outbreak.
Three people who shopped at the Johnsburg Wal-Mart contracted Legionnaire’s disease. Wal-Mart has taken action to prevent any possible spread of the disease, among other things by shutting down the produce sprinkler system: Wal-Mart issued a statement saying “We take the situation seriously and out of an abundance of caution are replacing our sprinkler system, which is specifically designed with nozzle sizes and no reservoirs to minimize and prevent exposure to this problem.” Also, according to a statement issued by Wal-Mart, the strain found at their store is not the same strain which has infected people in Lake and McHenry counties. Indeed, the Illinois Department of Public Health said that Wal-Mart was “one common potential exposure.” Unlike a murder mystery show, health investigators can only ask the victims where they’ve been in the past week, they can’t pin down the bacteria under bright lights and offer a plea deal to induce a confession about where they attacked their victims.
With or without certainty of the source, everyone should pay special attention to their loved ones if they start displaying flu-like symptoms.
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms usually start with headache, muscle pain, chills, and fever of 104 degrees or more. Then the symptoms may progress to include symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, gastrointestinal trouble such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Symptoms may also include confusion or mental changes. Symptoms typically appear 2 to 10 days after exposure to Legionella bacteria. There is a mild form of Legionnaire’s disease which is known as Pontiac fever. Pontiac fever doesn’t infect your lungs, but includes symptoms like fever, chills, headache and muscle aches.
Legionnaire’s disease must be diagnosed by a doctor, and if left untreated can lead to lethal complications such as respiratory failure, septic shock, or acute kidney failure. Outbreaks are commonly associated with places where people with weak respiratory or immune systems gather, or at places full of complex water systems, like hotels, cruise ships, hospitals, and long-term care facilities. The people most at risk are the elderly, cancer patients, people with chronic lung disease like COPD or emphysema, current or past smokers, or people with underlying illnesses which wear away at the body’s general ability to cope. The most common risk factor is heavy cigarette smoking, the most severe is organ transplant. The disease can be difficult to eradicate entirely, survivors may show persistent symptoms of fatigue, neurological or muscular issues in the months after an outbreak.
The good news is that Legionnaire’s disease can be treated by antibiotics, and in most cases, treatment is successful. However, in the rare even that an otherwise healthy person contracts Legionnaires’, they are still likely to need hospitalization to recover. Admission to intensive care is not uncommon.
When a family member falls ill, especially one who is particularly at risk, pay close attention to their symptoms. Think through where they have been, and if you think they might have been exposed to Legionella don’t hesitate to take them to a doctor for testing. Diagnosing and treating Legionnaire’s disease as early as possible can shorten its duration and reduce the chance of serious complications. For people who are high risk, early treatment is very important. For further prevention, look for reputable long-term care homes and hotels which follow meticulous cleaning and disinfection procedures for their pools and spas. Additionally, if you avoid smoking you significantly reduce the chance that you yourself will ever contract Legionnaire’s disease if you are exposed to Legionella. Smokers and people who have had lung disease have a dysfunctional aspiration prevention mechanism, which puts them at a higher risk of getting Legionella in their lungs.
If you put an average droplet of water under a microscope you’d find an awful lot more life in it than you’d probably like. Most of those bacteria are harmless, but if you find yourself getting sick after accidentally snorkeling water at the pool, might be worth a trip to the doctor just to be safe.
If you believe you have developed Legionnaires’ disease, we want you to know that a Legionnaires’ Lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations. Our lawyer, Jory Lange became a lawyer to help make our communities and families safer.
If you or a loved one have become ill with Legionnaires’ disease, you can call 833.330.3663 for a free consultation or complete the form here.
By: Abigail Cossette Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)