If you don’t live in New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of something called Legionnaires’ disease. If you do live in NYC, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Legionnaires’ for the very first time at some point within the past month.
According to the New York City Health Department, there was a sudden and unexpected outbreak of the disease in the Bronx area of the city at the end of 2014. There are currently 12 documented cases of the disease in the borough.
Legionnaires’ isn’t just your average flu or sinus infection; even though it’s estimated that as many as 20% of all Americans contract the flu each year, healthcare workers are often able to control the spread of such a common virus by reminding people to get a flu shot each year, to wash their hands frequently, and to cover their mouths when they sneeze.
Legionnaires’, on the other hand, isn’t spread through person-to-person contact. A person develops Legionnaires’ by inhaling water vapor droplets containing Legionella bacteria.
Legionella bacteria predictably grows in warm, moist environments such as showers, faucets, fountains, and even air vents. City health officials were able to track down the source of the bacteria fairly quickly: eight of the 12 infected patients reportedly all live in the same Co-Op City residential complex, and a preliminary test determined that the complex’s cooling towers contained the bacteria.
The residential complex management company has told reporters that the entire cooling tower system was shut down immediately, and that workers have begun a decontamination process using chlorine, which is expected to last anywhere from eight to 10 days.
Although area residents are notably upset and worried about the possibility of more bacteria growing in the area, city officials have stated that a widespread outbreak is unlikely. Legionnaires’ is treatable with antibiotics when caught early on, and that decontamination experts are working closely with the building complex to continue testing for the bacteria in nearby areas.
Legionnaires’ is a severe type of pneumonia, so the symptoms are fairly similar: lung inflammation, coughing, shortness of breath, and fever, and muscle aches are typically the first symptoms. Over time, the person is likely to experience vomiting, diarrhea, and mental confusion, and if left untreated, it can cause fatal kidney failure and/or respiratory failure.