Legionnaire’s disease, so called because the illness was first identified at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976, is back in the news. Four people have died and many dozens have become ill in the South Bronx. Legionnaire’s Disease is a respiratory illness caused by waterborne bacteria that are spread through air-conditioning systems, hot tubs, humidifiers, showers and cooling towers.
Many thousands of cases of Legionnaire’s Disease are reported in the United States every year, but they are usually isolated. Major outbreaks, such as the one in the Bronx, are less frequent. The first known outbreak, in 1976, 34 people who were staying at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel died as a result of the illness. In addition to major outbreaks in Europe in 1985 and 1999, the world’s largest outbreak occurred in 2001 in Murica, Spain. Officials estimated that at least 16,000 people were exposed to the bacteria; there were 800 suspected cases and 449 confirmed cases.
There have been other major outbreaks, including at a nursing home in Canada and in a Portuguese town where the source of the bacteria was thought to be a cooling tower at a fertilizer plant.
Responding to the outbreak in the Bronx, New York City Health Department investigators have identified five buildings where they found the bacteria in cooling and air conditioning systems. The outbreak has prompted calls for the city to regularly inspect buildings with large air-conditioning systems and cooling towers. According to a story in the New York Times, the five buildings where the bacteria has been found are Concourse Plaza, the Opera House Hotel, Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, Streamline Plastics and a Verizon office building at 117 East 167th Street. These buildings are all within a 20 block radius.
City officials and building owners are scrambling to contain the outbreak, raising an important question: Who is responsible? What about public building owners that include the New York City Housing Authority and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation? What about the private businesses where bacteria was found? Should the city be required to inspect all buildings with systems where the bacteria that causes the disease might be present?
Time will tell. Visit this site again for updates and more information.
Photo: Centers for Disease Control