: This article by Brian Labus, a UNLV professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
In the nearly 50 years since epidemiologists first discovered Legionnaires’ disease, we have learned how to test for it, treat it and prevent it. So why are people still dying from it and why are more and more people becoming sick with it every single year?
Most recently, one woman died and over 70 other people were infected in the largest outbreak of the disease in Georgia history after staying at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel in mid-July.
From 2000 through 2017, the number of reports of Legionnaires’ disease increased over 500% in the United States. Many factors contribute to this increase: a true increase in cases, an older population at higher risk, better diagnosis, improved disease reporting and more thorough investigation of outbreaks by health departments. However, the fact remains that each year over 6,000 people are infected and over 250 people die from a disease that is largely preventable.
I am an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health. For nearly 15 years, I investigated outbreaks of disease for the health department in Las Vegas and I dealt with Legionnaires’ disease in Las Vegas Strip hotels onnumerousoccasions, including repeatedly investigating one resort that spent eight years fighting the pathogen.
What is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory disease that occurs when the bacteria Legionella pneumophila infect the lungs. In order to become sick, you have to inhale microscopic droplets of water that are contaminated with the bacteria. Simply drinking contaminated water is not enough to make you sick, and you cannot catch the disease from someone else who is sick.
It can take up to 10 days for symptoms to appear, and when they do, they initially look like a bad case of flu. The illness typically begins with a high fever, a cough, shortness of breath, muscle ache and headache. After a couple of days, these symptoms progress to pneumonia, a buildup of fluid in the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe. In 2014 and 2015, more than 95% of people with Legionnaires’ disease wound up being hospitalized. While the disease is treatable with antibiotics, about 1 in 8 still died from their infection.
Although the bacteria can infect people of all ages, more than 80% of reported cases were 50 years old or older and about 60% were men. Smokers and people with underlying lung diseases – such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – or weakened immune systems, due to medicines or health problems such as cancer or diabetes, are also at higher risk of infection.
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