Sick with Legionnaires’ disease?
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For the second time this year, Washington Heights is battling Legionnaires’ disease: The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced Friday that eight residents of the neighborhood had been infected within a five-day span.

All eight – who range in age from younger than 40 to older than 80 – needed to be hospitalized. Only one patient has been discharged.

In the neighborhood’s first incident, 27 people were sickened in an outbreak over the summer. One victim died.

“The Health Department has identified a second cluster this season of Legionnaires’ disease in the lower Washington Heights area, and we are taking aggressive steps to ensure the safety of residents,” acting DOHMH commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot was quoted in a press release.

The investigation into the summer outbreak identified a cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project in Harlem as the cause for the illnesses that infected residents of Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights. Analysis of human and cooling-tower specimens matched Legionella strains from the Sugar Hill cooling tower and six patients from the outbreak, which first made headlines July 11.

The DOHMH has ordered the Sugar Hill Project to once again clean and disinfect its cooling systems, because of its proximity to the latest outbreak. The Sugar Hill Project is located at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue and West 155th Street.

According to the DOHMH’s statement, the department has sampled 20 cooling towers within a mile radius to identify the cause for the latest cluster. Owners of buildings with cooling towers that test positive for Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, will be ordered to increase their efforts to eliminate it.

The DOHMH will lead a community meeting on the latest incident at 6 p.m. Monday at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center at 85 Bradhurst Avenue to answer questions and provide updates on the situation.

Watch for symptoms
“Although the risk is very low, we urge residents and people who work in the area to take precautions,” Barbot said in the statement. “Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious and can be treated with common antibiotics if caught early. Anyone with flu-like symptoms such as cough, fever or difficulty breathing should seek medical attention immediately.”

If you live, work or travel through the area, please be vigilant because someone who is infected might not yet be presenting symptoms because of the disease’s two-week incubation period. If you are feeling flu-like symptoms, it’s recommended you see your health-care provider immediately out of an abundance of caution.

Similar to other pneumonias
The symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease look like other forms of pneumonia (lung infection) or even the flu, which is why so many cases go unreported every year. Early symptoms can include the following:

  • chills
  • fever (potentially 104 degrees or higher)
  • headaches
  • loss of appetite
  • muscle aches.

After the first few days of the disease presenting, symptoms can worsen to include:

  • chest pain when breathing (called pleuritic chest pain, due to inflamed lungs)
  • confusion and agitation
  • a cough, which can bring up mucus and blood
  • diarrhea, nausea and vomiting (about one-third of all cases result in gastrointestinal problems)
  • shortness of breath.

There is also a mild form of Legionnaires’ disease called Pontiac fever, which can produce similar symptoms that include fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches. Pontiac fever doesn’t infect the lungs, however, and symptoms usually clear within two to five days.

More on Legionnaires

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.

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.

High-risk categories
Most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not get sick. However, anyone can become ill from the bacteria.

Those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, both 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).