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Friday, August 14, 2015

Summer cough due to cold...or Legionnaires’ disease?

Summer is the time for family vacations and idyllic thoughts of travelling to new destinations.  Reality generally includes squabbles with your spouse or significant other and your ungrateful and often whiny children repeatedly asking ‘are we there yet?” or stating “I want to go home so I can play with my friends”.  New York City or NYC is definitely one of the those places that many summer vacationers flock to, but this summer some people may be considering alternative plans in light of the fact that NYC (or at least The South Bronx) has been experiencing a Legionella outbreak since early July.

To date 12 people have died and more than 120 people have been diagnosed with the infection caused by bacteria breathed in with contaminated water droplets.  The NYC Health Department has been actively investigating and is testing water from cooling towers and other potential sources in the area to determine the source of the outbreak.  New Yorkers with respiratory symptoms, such as fever, cough, chills and muscle aches, are urged to promptly seek medical attention.   Thankfully, Legionnaires' disease cannot be spread from person to person.  Groups at high risk for Legionnaire’s disease include people who are middle-aged or older, especially cigarette smokers and people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems.

Warm temperatures can help the bacteria to thrive, so to contain the outbreak the city's health department ordered that all buildings with cooling towers be tested within the next two weeks and any that are contaminated must be disinfected.  Within the “hot zone”, 111 sites have tested positive and 6 sites outside of the “hot zone” have also been confirmed positive.   As a result of not knowing what buildings have cooling towers city council approved new regulations to force building owners to register and inspect their cooling towers.  The law requires building owners to register all existing cooling towers within 30 days and any new cooling tower must be registered before it is used on the property. The city will also require quarterly inspections of all cooling towers and owners will be required to develop and implement a maintenance plan in line with the current engineering standards to prevent bacterial contamination.  If they do not comply they could face fines of up to $5,000.

Thankfully, since August 3rd, no new cases have been confirmed.                            

Outbreaks of Legionella are not new.  The first known outbreak occurred in 1976 when many people who went to a Philadelphia convention of the American Legion suffered from this disease...hence the name Legionnaires’ disease.  This summer’s NYC outbreak should serve to remind us that infection prevention needs to be part of our daily routine and not just something that gets addressed when an outbreak hits the news.  This is not the first time cooling towers have been implemented in such an outbreak.  Was NYC behind the times in having regulations in place to ensure a maintenance and inspection program or are they now ahead of the curve?  I suppose it will take the next outbreak for us to find out!

Bugging Off!


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