State health officials: Legionnaires’ disease on rise

5 patients diagnosed at UW-hospital
State health officials: Legionnaires’ disease on rise
CDC/William Cherry via Wikimedia Commons
A micrograph showing lung tissue infected with Legionnaires' disease

State health officials say it’s a record year for cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the state. That’s the type of pneumonia five UW-Hospital patients were diagnosed with this week.

One of those patients was already seriously ill and died this week after being diagnosed with the disease, which is usually seen in people with low immune systems. It’s caused by the Legionella bacteria.

“We’ve been seeing very high numbers this year of Legionnaires’ disease,” said Thomas Haupt, respiratory epidemiologist at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “It’s a record pace, and it’s not one we’re proud of … It is potentially 10 percent fatality rate for people who come down with it.”

Haput said Legionnaires’ disease is more common than one might think, and it’s become more prevalent over the years.

In 2010, Wisconsin DHS data shows the state had 63 confirmed cases. That jumped to 160 in 2013, and now in November of this year, that number is approaching 300.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can. We’re keeping an eye on things,” Haupt said, adding that this trend is mirrored nationally. “It’s just been an unexplainable year for Legionnarie’s disease.”

He said it’s hard to trace the source of the disease, which is caused by a certain type of bacteria.

“It’s frustrating for everyone involved, including patients and families,” Haupt said.

A hot water system at UW Hospital is the suspected source of five cases of Legionnaries’ disease, which is spread through breathing in the mist of contaminated water.

The way that water is contaminated could be from houses and businesses’ pipes.

“People probably don’t think about the plumbing inside their homes all that often, but it really does impact water quality,” said Amy Barrilleaux, Madison Water Utility public information officer. “We do a lot of work to make sure the water, when it gets to your home, it’s safe, it’s disinfected, it’s ready to go. But once it gets there, all that plumbing inside your home needs to be taken care of.”

She said water going in to homes and businesses is disinfected with chlorine, but stagnant water warm water in plumbing systems runs the risk of growing bacteria like the one that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

“Especially if you have one of those extra bathrooms or something somewhere, just use that water in there, because when you turn on the tap after a couple months, that water has been sitting in that tap for a couple of months,” Barrilleaux said.

Haupt said health experts still aren’t sure why Legionnaries’ disease is on the rise nationwide, but the DHS website said it could be any combination of a number of factors, like increased reporting, more people at risk and/or more Legionella bacteria in the environment.

Haupt said the fact that UW hadn’t had any hospital-acquired cases of Legionnaries’ disease in 23 years before this week is a good track record, and there’s no risk to the public at this point.

He said, however, if you or a loved one were in the hospital for an extended period of time and came out with pneumonia, it’s worth getting checked out.

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