Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

A bacteria people certainly don't need

Feb 04, 2015 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Twelve cases of Legionnaires’ disease were diagnosed in New York City in December and officials are well they should be.

In July of 1976, the American Legion held their annual convention in Philadelphia. The venue was a natural—it was the Bicentennial year and “the Cradle of Liberty” was a perfect patriotic choice as the town was teaming with tourists. More than 2,000 of whom were Legionnaires staying at the city’s most renowned hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford. When the attendees starting returning home from the three-day convention, some became ill complaining of tiredness, chest pains, lung congestion, and fever. Within a week, 130 were stricken and 24 had died from the unfamiliar infection.

The outbreak triggered an unprecedented CSI-type investigation (years before the concept became part of our culture) with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leading the hunt. It took six months to discover that the bacteria was located in the cooling tower of the hotel’s air conditioner and had spread throughout the building that way.

There were 29 Legionnaires’ deaths in total, with 189 stricken. The venerable hotel was another victim. It was sold and closed several times over the years. In 1996, the Bellevue-Stratford became a Hyatt and has regained some of its previous standing.

Legionnaires’ disease, now being properly diagnosed, still represents four percent of all pneumonia cases. Small outbreaks have been seen in several hospitals over the years, and even once at the Playboy Mansion. However, Legionnaires is most often found in isolated cases not associated with a widespread outbreak. Which is why NYC officials took the cases very seriously.

It can take up to 14 days for symptoms to manifest, so backtracking a source is complicated. However, two weeks ago the New York City Department of Health announced that preliminary tests have tracked the contamination to the cooling towers of an apartment complex in the Bronx.

Is there a lesson to be learned for those of us living in our own major metropolitan area or working in large office buildings? It is important to know that Legionnaires is not transmitted from person-to-person. It is a product of our environment. With more people living in tighter proximity in growing urbanized areas, vigilance and responsive government agencies are our best defense.

--Sarah Hagerty
Click here to sign up to our new Health Beat E-Newsletter