A patient has contracted Legionnaires’ disease while undergoing treatment for cancer at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC), the third consecutive year that the deadly respiratory illness has hit the hospital.

The news comes less than a year after the death of a woman in her 20s who contracted Legionnaires’ while a patient at the Seattle hospital. She was one of three patients sickened with the disease in August of last year, although one patient became ill in the community, not at the hospital.

Five people were sickened with the severe type of pneumonia in 2016, and two victims died. All seven of those sickened at the hospital in the past two years took ill while at the UWMC building called Cascade Tower.

The latest illness occurred while the patient was being treated at the hospital’s Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) unit. The patient is recovering and in satisfactory condition, hospital officials said. The patient’s age and gender were not reported.

An investigation is underway to identify the location of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, and if or to what extent the bacteria remains at the hospital. All patient respiratory specimens are being tested for the existence of Legionella, and patients with pneumonia are being tested as well.

Hospital staff has talked to patients being cared for at the SCCA and their family members. In addition, two rooms in which the ill patient received care have been closed, and an ice machine has been replaced, according to a UWMC spokesperson. Environmental testing is being conducted to try to pinpoint exactly where and when the person contracted the disease.

UWMC is investigating this latest illness with Public Health – Seattle & King County and the state Department of Health.

UWMC implemented intensive water management since the previous cases, which includes testing and monitoring of water temperature, chlorine levels and tests for the presence of Legionella. Special filters were installed on all showers and sinks in the in-patient rooms in the Cascade Tower.

UWMC and SCCA officials said the case is believed to be isolated and reiterated that “Legionella bacteria are rarely if ever transmitted from person to person.”

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia (lung infection). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur yearly in the United States. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Ten percent of people who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Where do Legionella live?
Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, such as:

  • water systems, like those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • large plumbing systems
  • faucets and showers
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • swimming pools
  • decorative fountains
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems.

Who is most at risk?
Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

Legionnaires’ symptoms
Legionnaires’ disease is similar to other types of pneumonia. Symptoms can even resemble those of flu, which is why Legionnaires’ often goes under-reported.

Symptoms include:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.