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  • An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City has affected 19 people.
  • One person has died, and eight are currently hospitalized.
  • City officials said that cooling towers in the neighborhood tested positive for the Legionella bacteria that causes this disease.

The New York City Department of Health (NYDOH) has announced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx borough of New York City (NYC).

Since May 3, nineteen people have been affected by the outbreak so far, with one death and eight currently hospitalized.

The disease is caused by a bacterium called Legionella.

The NYDOH said they tested cooling towers in the borough’s Highbridge section for the presence of a bacteria that causes this disease, a type of pneumonia. Four of these towers tested positive for the pathogen and were ordered disinfected.

“We are saddened to hear about a death in a person who contracted Legionnaires’,” said Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD, in a statement. “Health Department staff are working to ensure that buildings in the cluster area are treated and conditions remediated quickly.”

The NYDOH said while the likely source of the bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease in the community is a cooling tower in the affected area, these units only control the temperature of cooling systems, like central air conditioning or refrigeration.

“The cooling towers spray mist from the top that can contain the bacteria,” said the agency. “All of the cooling towers in the affected area are being tested by the Health Department.”

The water becomes aerosolized via air conditioners or similar devices, and then it can lead to infection when a person breathes in the droplets.

The agency emphasized this is not an issue with any building’s plumbing system and confirmed that it’s safe to drink, bathe, shower, and cook using tap water or run an air conditioner.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the bacteria becomes a “potentially deadly” health hazard when it contaminates places like poorly maintained domestic and industrial water systems.

These include cooling towers and heating, ventilation, and air condition (HVAC) systems.

The disease affects the respiratory system and is caused by a bacterium called Legionella pneumophilia.

Being exposed to Legionella can lead to Legionellosis, which causes both Pontiac fever and Legionnaires’ disease.

“It is very infectious, but not from one person to another,” Robert Lahita, MD, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at Saint Joseph Health and author of “Immunity Strong.” said. “Generally, the infection results from contaminated water in a reservoir like an air conditioner.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache

“More commonly, the disease presents as an atypical pneumonia,” Lahita continued. “There is a dry cough, and the course can be quite rough and in some instances result in death.”

Lahita added that the incubation period might be as long as 10 days in some instances.

The CDC said that in 2018 health departments reported about 10,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the U.S.

However, they caution that Legionnaires’ disease is likely underdiagnosed, and the true number of cases could be nearly three times higher.

The agency noted that roughly 10 percent of those who develop Legionnaires’ disease will die, and in rare instances, the disease can be transmitted from one person to another.

The disease was first identified in 1976 in Philadelphia at a gathering of the American Legion.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Legionnaires’ disease has been a reportable condition in New York State since 1985. Reported cases in NYC have increased from only 47 in 2000 to 438 by 2015.

In July 2015, the Bureau of Communicable Disease of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene detected an “abnormal number and distribution” of Legionnaires’ disease cases in the South Bronx.

This outbreak eventually grew into the largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in NYC history.

“Proper disinfection of our water systems is key,” said Hannah Newman, MPH, director of epidemiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC.

She added that water management programs reduce the risk of Legionella growth and spread, and the CDC has developed toolkits to help building owners and management put these systems in place.

“In addition, health inspections are performed by health departments to keep an eye on Legionella risk,” Newman said.

“There are everyday strategies that can also help prevent Legionnaires’ disease,” she noted.

“Taking a bath instead of a shower will reduce the potential of breathing in the bacteria,” Newman advised. “Avoid creating mists by filling sinks and bathtubs slowly, and use cold water whenever possible.”

She added other strategies, including avoiding the use of hot tubs, humidifiers, or anything that has the potential to aerosolize water to reduce risk and to keep bathing area surfaces as clean as possible.

“Test kits can also be purchased and used before operating hot tubs [or] spa water to identify and prevent Legionella spread,” Newman recommended.

There has been an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx borough of NYC.

Experts say contaminated water droplets or fine mist from certain types of water systems used in heating and cooling spreads the disease.

They also say this is different from drinking water systems, and residents in the affected area may safely continue drinking, cooking with, and bathing in tap water.