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Routine Testing Finds Legionella at Wayne State University

Posted in Legionnaire's disease,Our Blog,Outbreaks & Recalls on August 15, 2019

For Wayne State University, vigilance is paying off. Routine testing discovered heightened levels of Legionella bacteria in the Old Main cooling tower and the tower has been temporarily shut down for disinfection. Last year, late May, a WSU employee was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. Investigation at the time found Legionella in three cooling towers and three bathrooms. No one has been reported sick from this years’ discovery of the harmful bacteria. HEre’s what we know about the Wayne State University Legionella find:

It’s very good that the University is being vigilant and testing their systems to maintain the safety of the public on their campus. Unchecked, an outbreak could be devastating. There was also a discovery of Legionella at a Ford Motor Company’s Ford Rouge Center in 2018.  Another case of testing uncovering the danger before it caused people to fall ill.

Serious business

At an American Legion convention in 1976, people started to fall gravely ill with pneumonia like symptoms. Of the Legionnaires, veterans of the U.S. military committed to helping their communities, 200 people were hospitalized and 34 died. This was, naturally, alarming, and so the event was investigated. In the proceeding investigation, the Legionella bacteria was identified and named by the CDC. Originally, they believed that the air conditioning system in the hotel was what spread the disease, but it may also have been spread by the water in the hotel.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia which does not normally spread person to person. Legionnaires’ spreads by inhaling water droplets inhabited by the bacteria called Legionella pneumophila. Bacteria love warm, stagnant water, so complex water systems need to be carefully designed and maintained to keep from harboring dangerous bacteria like Legionella pneumophila and then aerosolizing them into a dangerous form. The most common way to get Legionnaires’ is by breathing tainted mist or aspiration. Aspiration is when you choke in such a way that spittle goes “down the wrong pipe,” going into your relatively unprotected lungs instead of taking your esophagus down to your stomach where it will be dealt with by your stomach juices.

Because of this modus operandi, 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 Legionnaires’ dramatic discovery in 1976, the statistics have gotten a little bit more favorable for survival, but are still rougher than one would like: The CDC states that 1 in 10 people who contract legionnaires’ die. An estimated 10,000 to 18,000 of people in the United States become infected by the Legionella bacteria each year.

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.

What to look for if you think you might have been exposed to Legionnaire’s

The symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease usually lead off with headache, muscle pain, chills, and fever of 104 degrees or more. Then the symptoms may progress to include delightful features such as cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, then gastrointestinal trouble such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Symptoms may also include confusion or mental changes. All this typically manifests 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 still includes not so delightful symptoms like: fever, chills, headache and muscle aches.

Because it is so very similar to regular pneumonia, Legionnaire’s disease must be diagnosed by a doctor. If left untreated can lead to lethal complications such as respiratory failure, septic shock, or acute kidney failure.

Outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease are commonly associated with places where people with weak respiratory or immune systems gather. A university, for example, would have elderly professors and extremely stressed out students. Outbreaks are also at places full of complex water systems, like hotels, cruise ships, hospitals, and long-term care facilities.

The people most at risk, as usual, are the elderly. Also, cancer patients, people with chronic lung disease like COPD or emphysema, current or past smokers, or those with underlying illnesses which wear away at the body’s general ability to cope. However, the most common risk factor is heavy cigarette smoking, and the most severe is organ transplant.

Once contracted, the disease can be difficult to eradicate entirely. Survivors may show persistent symptoms of fatigue, neurological or muscular issues for months after an outbreak.

But There Is Good News

The good news is that Legionnaire’s disease can be treated. Doctors treat it with 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. Intensive care is a common stop for those infected by Legionella.

Looking After Your Family

Pay attention to news about outbreaks and if you or a family member have been to a contaminated facility keep a close eye on yourself and your family members, particularly the at-risk members. If they develop symptoms, don’t hesitate to go to the doctor for testing.

If an at-risk family falls ill, even if you haven’t heard of an outbreak, 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 those who are high risk, early treatment is very important. For further prevention when you travel or when looking for long-term care, look for reputable long-term care homes and hotels which follow meticulous cleaning and disinfection procedures for their pools and spas.

Additionally, giving up smoking, or never taking it up, will 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 much, much higher risk of getting Legionella in their lungs.

By: Abigail Cossette Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)