Legionnaires’ disease is the latest health scare that has taken New Yorkers by storm and put the city into somewhat of a frenzy.
News of the outbreak made headlines last week, with cases seen in the South Bronx. As of Thrusday nearly 90 cases of the disease and eight deaths have been reported since July 10.
Legionnaires’ disease is primarily caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion and diarrhea. Symptoms usually appear two to 10 days after significant exposure to Legionella bacteria. Those who died had underlying health conditions and were elderly.
Most cases of Legionnaires’ disease can be traced to plumbing systems, where conditions are favorable for Legionella growth, such as whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks, cooling towers and evaporative condensers of large air conditioning systems. Several cooling towers in the South Bronx have been decontaminated as a result, and a wider look at cooling towers across the city has been prompted. The disease cannot spread person to person.
At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said there is no risk to the water supply and that Legionnaires’ disease is treatable with antibiotics. Most of those being treated are at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.
“But what we do know is this was the clear peak, and the number of cases has been slowly reducing,” de Blasio said. “As I said, since yesterday, five more cases, but it suggests a reduction in the rate of increase—and that is good news.”
Seventeen buildings in the cluster area were identified as having cooling towers. The peak of the outbreak was on July 30, and there has been a reduction in the number of cases. The City Council is proposing legislation that would identify and inspect all cooling towers across the city.
“It is the responsibility of government to protect the health and well-being of the public, and this common sense proposal will help do just that,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “It cannot be forgotten that seven Bronx residents have died during this outbreak. An appropriate inspection mechanism could have saved lives.”
Commissioner Mary Bassett of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said Legionnaires’ disease has been something in the environment for a long time, but was first identified in 1976 at an American Legion’s Convention in Philadelphia.
There was a small outbreak last year in the Co-Op City section of the Bronx. Cases across the city usually average 200 to 300 per year.
“I think if we had just seen an occasional, very small, brief outbreak, we might have been able to say, OK, this is something that happens very rarely,” Bassett said. “But now I think it’s quite clear this is something that we have to attack very, very squarely.”
A town hall meeting was held this week at the Bronx Museum of Art to allow the community to ask questions and voice their concerns about the disease.
Top concerns include the effects of the illness on seniors and how to get to a doctor if you suspect you have the disease. Many residents said they didn’t even have a clear idea about what Legionnaires’ disease was.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2009, incidents of Legionnaires’ disease varied by racial and ethnic groups, with the highest incidence among non-Hispanic Blacks. Average incidence per year for non-Hispanic Blacks was higher than that for non-Hispanic whites.