Legionella bacteria has sickened six individuals in suburban Cleveland, and health inspectors said they believe the source of the illness may be St. Columbkille Church, where all six are parishioners, according to a statement released by The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
Cleveland 19 reporter Lacey Crisp reported that a woman in Parma – about 10 miles south of Cleveland – had died from complications of Legionnaires’ disease. The victim’s son told Crisp that the woman who passed away was a parishioner at the church. It is unknown at this time whether she was one of the six who was confirmed to be ill.
Information was not provided on the health status, age or gender of those sickened.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Health (CCBH) notified the church of the six potential cases of Legionnaires’ disease. CCBH officials visited the church multiple times, conducting environmental testing to see if the bacteria exists on church grounds.
The church shut down its air conditioning units as a precaution on the recommendation of the CCBH, and the building will not be used until the environmental test results are returned.
Members of the church or individuals who live within close proximity or even travel through the Parma neighborhood and are feeling flu-like symptoms (see below) are being advised to seek immediate care from their health-care provider.
Legionella is not spread from person-to-person, and most people exposed do not become ill, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The bacteria is treatable with antibiotics when caught early.
Legionnaires’ or Pontiac Fever?
People who get sick after being exposed to Legionella can develop two different illnesses: Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac Fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Pontiac fever symptoms are primarily fever and muscle aches; it is a milder infection than Legionnaires’ disease. Pontiac fever differs from Legionnaires’ because someone with Pontiac fever does not develop pneumonia.
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe type of pneumonia (lung infection). According to the CDC, an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur yearly in the U.S. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.
One in 10 patients infected with Legionnaires’ will die from the disease.
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.
Legionnaires’ disease clusters and outbreaks have been linked to numerous sources, such as:
- cooling towers of air conditioning systems
- large plumbing systems
- water systems, such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
- hot-water tanks and heaters
- showers and faucets
- swimming pools
- hot tubs and whirlpools
- equipment used in physical therapy
- mist machines and hand-held sprayers
- decorative fountains.
Legionnaires’ disease, which is also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia, is similar to other types of pneumonia, an infection of the air sacs in one or both lungs that can produce fluid in the lungs. Legionnaires’ disease symptoms can resemble common flu-like symptoms in the following forms:
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- difficulty breathing
- gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
A disease on the rise
Legionnaires’ disease is “an emerging disease in the sense that the number of recorded cases of Legionnaires’ in the United States continues to increase,” said Laura Cooley, MD, MPH of the CDC’s Respiratory Diseases Branch. Cooley said she believes the increase is because of an increase in the susceptibility of the population, with more and more people on immunosuppressive medications. In addition there could be more Legionella in the environment, with warmer temperatures creating the right conditions for bacterial growth.