Coast-to-coast outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease might lead some people to believe the bacterial menace is sweeping the nation, but fear not. Although the recent outbreaks in several states have had elements of timing and location that made them news, they aren’t related—nor are they much outside of the norm, according to health officials.
The disease, which causes infection in the lungs, began making headlines in July when more than 120 people in the South Bronx became ill. Twelve died before the source of the contamination—a cooling tower atop the Opera House Hotel—was located. New York City Health officially declared the outbreak to be over on August 20, after no new cases had been reported for more than two weeks.
Less than two weeks later, however, another significant outbreak was reported—this time in California’s San Quentin prison. Six inmates had contracted the disease and another 95 are under observation, according to the latest statement by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The source of the infection, which spreads when the waterborne Legionella bacteria is inhaled through steam or mist, hasn’t yet been identified.
A similar situation also struck the Illinois Veteran’s Home in Quincy about the same time. In that case, 41 people had been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ and eight had died.
While it may be natural to assume that the disease is on the rise, Matthew Moore of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Associated Press that, although bacterial growth was making a slightly earlier than normal appearance this year, the amount of activity was “par for the course.”
Legionnaires’ disease was first discovered when it sickened 123 people at an American Legion Convention in 1976. Because the bacteria can cause serious infections in those with compromised lungs—the elderly, asthmatic, or smokers, for instance—it can strike certain populations particularly hard.
Still, the disease is treatable for many. The CDC estimates that 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease each year, but also warns that many cases—which are tracked by local and state health departments—aren’t documented or reported. For those that do contract the disease, the death rate is about 15 percent—similar to other pneumonia-like illnesses.
This year’s total cases—currently just above 3,000—aren’t too far from the 5,000 reported last year. But even if numbers do end up spiking, in the larger scheme of things, the public has many more environmental risks to be concerned about. In fact, considering how adept health officials have become at handling outbreaks since the discovery of the bacteria, it’s much less of a threat, as Vanderbilt University’s William Schaffner told the New York Times.
“This is something that public health has done many times over since 1976,” he said. “We know how to solve this problem.”