Legionnaires’ Disease Making a Comeback – Older Americans are at higher risk for the bacterial pneumonia

Legionnaires’ disease is back on the rise, with several new outbreaks in June alone. A Hawaiian island resort, a Pittsburgh hospital and a Maryland senior-living community are all battling pneumonia-causing Legionella bacteria in their water systems. Older adults are at higher risk for getting sick after breathing in water droplets containing Legionella. Here’s what you should know about this respiratory illness.

Outbreak Response

The first case in May could have been a coincidence. Just four days after moving into The Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant, a continuing care retirement community, a resident was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. On June 10, the Ellicott City, Maryland, facility informed residents and staff of what was then a single case of pneumonia.

It was unclear whether the resident had been exposed in the community or elsewhere. But a second and then a third resident (who also recently moved in) developed Legionnaires’ disease. By then, administrators had brought in a consultant, Janet Stout, director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh, and were already taking precautions.

The facility “pulled out all the stops” to address the issue, says Stout, an associate research professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Legionnaires’ expert. That meant restricting access to tap water and providing bottled water to drink; adapting ways of cooking, tooth-brushing, shaving and showering; and bringing in a team to assess the water distribution system and test water samples. Treating water systems with extra chlorine is the first step for reducing Legionella bacteria, Stout says.

In a three-hour meeting, Stout spoke with residents and staff members to address their many questions. “Can someone get Legionnaires’ disease from somebody else who has it?” was a major concern. No, she told them. There’s no person-to-person transmission with Legionella. Also reassuring: In general, people who’ve had Legionnaires’ usually won’t get it a second time.

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