Vermont health officials report investigating a cluster of Legionnaires’ disease in Franklin County. Officials identified five confirmed cases, including one death of an individual in their 70’s, but the source of the infections remains unknown.
The cases, reported to the Health Department between Aug. 12 and Aug. 29, appear to be clustered in the St. Albans area. Although no common source of the infections has been found, officials said the general risk to residents of St. Albans and Franklin County is very low, as most healthy people exposed to the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease do not get sick.
Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. The bacteria can be found in natural, freshwater environments, but generally not enough to cause illness. In the water systems of buildings where water sits stagnant, Legionella can multiply and infect people if they breathe in mist or vapor containing the bacteria. Common sources of infection are air-conditioning units for large buildings (cooling towers), hot tubs, cooling misters, decorative fountains or plumbing systems. Home air-conditioning units do not use water to cool, so they are not a risk for Legionella growth.
Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious and almost never spreads from person to person. People at increased risk of serious illness include those aged 50 and older who currently smoke or formerly smoked, have chronic lung disease, or a weakened immune system. While most individuals infected will get better with antibiotic treatment, the disease can be fatal in about one in 10 people.
The Health Department recommends that people who live or work in Franklin County contact a health care professional if they experience symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease. Symptoms usually begin 2 to 14 days after being exposed, and can include cough, muscle aches, fever, shortness of breath and headache.
“Illness from Legionnaires’ disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics. But it can also result in very serious illness, so it’s important to reach out to your doctor if you have symptoms,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “We are also asking building owners to check their water systems, and make sure they are properly maintained to help prevent Legionella growth and transmission.”
The Health Department strongly recommends that owners and managers of commercial and office buildings, hotels and vacation rentals, as well as public hot tub operators and health care facilities, develop and maintain water management programs to prevent the growth and transmission of Legionella in their water systems.
Buildings with specific features — such as cooling towers, hot tubs, pools, decorative water fountains and features, fire sprinkler systems, showers, and large complex plumbing systems — may need additional steps to keep these features clean and well-maintained.
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