It’s summer, so it’s time for thrilling movies, roller coasters, shark attacks and, most serious of all, scary diseases.
For several summers, we watched West Nile virus march across North America. Last summer, Ebola had us near panic. Now, it’s Legionnaires’ disease that has us worried.
An outbreak in New York City has hospitalized more than 90 people and claimed at least 10 lives. And in recent days, the cause of death of a Kansas City area man has been confirmed as Legionnaires’.
The bacterial disease got its name from an outbreak among many people who attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976.
The bacteria had been around causing pneumonia and flu-like illnesses long before they were identified in Philadelphia, and they have never gone away.
They can grow in the plumbing of large air-conditioning systems, cruise ships, whirlpool spas, hot tubs and the mist machines in supermarket produce displays. People pick up the bacteria when they inhale the contaminated water vapor. The New York outbreak has been blamed on poorly maintained cooling towers on several buildings.
While relatively uncommon, Legionnaires’ disease does cause fear and fascination, said Lee Norman, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Hospital.
“It’s lurking out there, and hits unexpectedly. People are kind of imagining their office as contaminated and get nervous,” Norman said.
“But in the big scheme of things, it’s small potatoes. Auto accidents, gun violence, influenza, vaccine-preventable illnesses. That short list is a thousand times more likely to be a problem.”
That doesn’t mean Legionnaires’ shouldn’t be considered seriously. About 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized each year with the disease and about 5 to 30 percent die, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Typically, it’s older people, smokers and people with chronic illnesses or immune system disorders who become ill.
But caught soon enough, Legionnaires’ is treatable with antibiotics.
“They may well get over it and be no worse for wear,” Norman said.
And unlike Ebola, Legionnaires’ disease can’t be spread from person to person, which may come as a relief to many.
“You don’t have to worry about standing next to someone in the American Legion on a bus,” Norman said.