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Residents at the Warren Barr nursing home at 1725 S. Wabash Ave in IL woke up one morning to signs around the premises saying not to use the water for bathing. Apparently, a few of the residents had contracted Legionnaire’s disease. The name brings to mind Roman legionnaires in sandals and red plumed helmets marching in file, or perhaps those same soldiers dying of the plague in tents. But the bacteria gets its name not from overwhelming numbers and organization, or from a tragedy on Caesar’s conquests, but from the event where the CDC discovered it: an American Legion convention in 1976, after which 200 people, mostly men, were hospitalized and within a week 34 died. The air conditioning system in the hotel was originally believed to be what spread the disease, but additional evidence indicates it may have been spread by the water in the hotel.
Warren Barr nursing home notified the direct relatives of those infected individuals and plans to post informative pamphlets throughout the facility even though tests for Legionnaires’ at the facility have come back negative. It is better to be safe than sorry, especially at a facility such as theirs which focuses on patients recovering from surgery or serious illness. In 2015, one patient at their Gold Coast facility died of Legionnaires’ disease.
Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia. It does not, however, generally spread person to person. Legionnaires’ can be contracted by inhaling water droplets inhabited by the bacteria called Legionella pneumophila.
Legionella pneumophila can be found anywhere, but typically only infects people who breathe in or aspirate contaminated mist or water. 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 down to your stomach where the bacteria in your gut and your stomach acid save the day. Legionella bacteria can be spread by water systems, air conditioning systems, sprinkler systems, produce sprinklers, humidifiers, hot tubs, choking in the shower, or any other complex water system which has not been properly cleaned and disinfected.
An estimated 10,000 to 18,000 of people in the United States become infected by the Legionella pneumophila bacteria each year. According to the CDC, 1 in 10 people who contract legionnaires’ die. 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 by rigorously disinfecting the contaminated system.
Some people have even gotten Legionnaires’ from working in contaminated soil.
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms usually start with:
Then the symptoms may progress by the second or third day to include symptoms such as:
Symptoms may also include confusion or mental changes.
According to the CDC, symptoms typically first appear 2 to 10 days after exposure to Legionella bacteria. The Mayo Clinic notes that occasionally Legionnaires’ can cause infections in wounds and in other parts of the body like the heart. The mild form of Legionnaire’s disease 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:
Outbreaks are commonly associated with places like Warren Barr nursing home, where people with weak respiratory or immune systems gather. Places full of complex water systems and at-risk people, like hotels, cruise ships, hospitals, and long-term care facilities are also more likely to have an outbreak than a personal septic system.
The people most at risk are people over age 50, 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 because the medicines which protect the new organ also make the body vulnerable to bacteria.
The good news is that Legionnaires’ disease can be treated by antibiotics, and in most cases, treatment is successful. 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. The disease can also be difficult to eradicate entirely, survivors may show persistent symptoms of fatigue, as well as neurological or muscular issues in the months after an outbreak. Most patients will recover entirely within a year.
When a family member or other loved one falls ill, especially one you know has a particularly vulnerable immune system, pay close attention to their symptoms. If you think they might have been exposed to Legionella don’t hesitate to take your loved one to a doctor for testing. Diagnosing and treating Legionnaires’ disease as early as possible can shorten its duration and reduce the chance of life-threatening complications. Early treatment is very important, especially for those who are at higher risk, like the residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities.
There is no vaccine available for Legionnaires’ disease. Pretty much the single biggest thing you can do for yourself to reduce your risk of ever catching this disease is to stop smoking. Smokers and people who have had lung disease have a dysfunctional aspiration prevention mechanism, which puts them at a higher risk of getting Legionella pneumophila in their lungs. For further prevention, if you or a loved one need a nursing home or long-term care, make sure to look for reputable long-term care homes and nursing homes which are well maintained and follow meticulous cleaning and disinfection procedures for their pools and spas.
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)