With its rather innocuous name, Legionnaires’ Disease can easily be underestimated. But the bacteria-borne infection can be devastating, leaving some victims with lifelong complications—even amputations—and has a mortality rate of up to 30 percent.

And while the average person might be baffled by the little-talked-about but deadly illness, researchers who have studied it for decades have few questions about Legionnaires’ Disease, how it spreads, and how to prevent it. We’ve had this knowledge for years, so why are people still dying?

Right now, a community in the south Bronx in New York City is in the throes of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease. Since July 10, there have been 86 confirmed cases of the disease. Seven people have died.

This week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said officials identified Legionella—the bacteria that causes the disease—in five water cooling towers at apartment complexes in the Bronx. Cooling towers hold the water used to heat, cool, and circulate air in large buildings, though officials aren’t yet clear on how many of the towers contributed to this breakout.
The number of cases being reported is slowing, but with a mortality rate of 8 percent so far, it’s not an outbreak to be ignored.

“We know an awful lot about the organism of the disease, where to find it, and how to stop it,” explained Janet Stout, the director of the Special Pathogens Lab and an environmental engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Stout has specialized in researching Legionella for more than 30 years and says we should be able to prevent these kinds of outbreaks with better monitoring.

Legionnaires’ disease got its name after a deadly outbreak in 1976 during a convention in Philadelphia for members of the American Legion. Since naming the disease, researchers have been able to identify the related bacteria and understand a great deal about the causes, treatment, and possible prevention of the disease.

“It’s not as rare as people think.”

There are actually 58 members of the Legionella family of bacteria, Stout told me, only half of which can cause the illness. Legionella bacteria are found naturally in rivers and ponds, but usually in small, harmless numbers. The trouble comes when a small number of Legionella bacteria travel through our water treatment systems—the bacteria isn’t very susceptible to the chemicals we use to treat our water, Stout said—and winds up in a cozy environment where it can start a family.

“It finds conditions that it likes or needs to grow: warm temperatures, other sources of food like the dirt and sediment normally found in pipes and cooling towers, and other microbes and bacteria that help Legionella to grow and multiply,” Stout said over the phone. “All of those conditions are present in those warm water systems.”


Motherboard.vice.com | by KALEIGH ROGERS | August 6, 2015