The Legionnaires’ disease cluster that is infecting upper Manhattan has claimed its first life, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). The number of infected has also more than doubled as 18 individuals have been diagnosed with the pneumonia-like illness.

The DOHMH first alerted the public about the outbreak July 11 when eight people were confirmed with the disease.

The victim – who has not been identified – was over the age of 50 but wasn’t diagnosed early, compromising their health situation. Seven people remain hospitalized. The illness has infected individuals from southern Washington Heights and northern Hamilton Heights.

“It’s really important if you’re feeling sick to get attention,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for disease control for the DOHMH.

Watch for symptoms
If you live, work or even travel through the affected area and are feeling flu-like symptoms (see below), it’s recommended you see your health-care provider immediately, out of an abundance of caution.

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’ symptoms can resemble common flu-like symptoms in the following forms:

  • fever
  • cough
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Officials reassured the public that Legionnaires’ disease is not passed person-to-person, and it’s easily cured with antibiotics if diagnosed early.

“You cannot catch Legionnaires’ from someone sneezing, coughing, hugging you or shaking your hand,” said Mark Levine, New York City Council member and chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Health. “Legionnaires’ is not contagious.”

Call for action from City Hall
Health officials took water samples from 20 cooling-tower systems from buildings between 145th and 165th Streets. Several building owners were ordered to increase their use of biocides to kill Legionella bacteria, which is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez believes the city should levy steep fines for building owners of cooling towers that fail inspections.

“This is very serious, a risk that we face in our city,” Rodriguez said outside City Hall. “We should be able to know if we run any risk of contracting the disease when we step into a building. We must also increase fines when a cooling tower fails inspection.”

Legionnaires’ info

Legionnaires’ disease 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 U.S. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

According to the CDC, 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.

Where do Legionella live?
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.