Legionnaire's Disease

By Julian Wemmie

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The cause of Legionnaire’s disease is a tiny bacterium called Legionella Pneumophila. It is transmitted through microscopic water droplets or bits of soil containing the legionella bacteria. Soil and water droplets are ideal places for the legionella bacterium, because they can easily enter the lungs. Outdoors it is near impossible to be infected with the bacteria, even though it can survive in soil and in water outdoors. Though inside, the bacteria can rapidly multiply in: hot tubs; decorative fountains; air conditioners; and swimming pools. The bacteria mainly reside in these places because they are not disinfected often, therefore nothing threatens the bacteria.


Symptoms for Legionnaire’s disease typically develop anywhere between two and 10 days after infection, but most commonly on the fifth or sixth day, depending on how strong the immune system is. When the symptoms do begin, they usually begin with: a headache; muscle pain or stiffness; the chills; and a fever usually at 104 F (40 C) or higher. The second or third day, after initial symptoms begin, a whole list of other symptoms develop: chest pain; A dry cough which also includes coughing up blood; diarrhea; nausea; vomiting; abdominal pain; malaise, which is a general discomfort; joint pain; loss of energy; shortness of breath; and confusion or other mental changes. Legionnaire’s disease primarily affect the lungs, but can affect some other parts of the body.


Legionnaire’s disease is preventable. All it requires is cleaning and disinfection of indoor water sources. You can also prevent it by reducing risk factors such as smoking and alcohol use, because these typically weaken the immune system. The chances of getting Legionnaire’s disease are increased by the following risk-factors: chronic illnesses such as kidney failure or diabetes; weakened immune systems, such as during cancer treatment; chronic lung diseases; long-term use of ventilator; and old age.


There are many ways to detect the Legionella bacteria, including: an arterial blood gases test; blood cultures bronchoscopy; a chest x-ray; a liver blood test; and a urine test. The faster the detection and hospitalization, the faster the treatment, as the disease is life-threatening. The main treatment is strong antibiotic use. Other treatments may include receiving fluids and oxygen, which is given through a mask or breathing machine.
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Focus Topic (History)

Legionnaire’s disease has existed since World War II, but only fairly recently has it been discovered. The outbreak that brought it to attention and to scientists was in only July of 1976.

It was the bicentennial of the United States, at the hometown of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia. Over 2,000 American Legionnaire’s were meeting at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, celebrating. Since Legionella Pneumophila likes warm, moist places (AC’s use hot water to transfer heat from the air), the air conditioner was a great place to be. And it happen to be air conditioning a room filled with over 2,000 people.

182 people eventually became infected, 147 required hospitalization, and 29 died. At the time, it was thought to of “Apparent heart attacks,” but upon closer inspection it was found to be because of a mysterious pneumonia.

Scientists at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) started working on it right away. They put Doctor Joseph McDade in charge of the whole operation.

After six months of research, McDade still could not find the culprit. They were having trouble isolating it, until finally in 1977 they succeeded. McDade injected blood with the pneumonia into different chicken eggs. When the eggs hatched, they found that the chicks were infected. With the infected chicks, McDade managed to isolate the bacteria. He named it Legionella Pneumophila. McDade and his team, also found that the usual antibiotic they use for pneumonia, didn’t affect Legionnaire’s disease.

Legionnaire’s disease still affects people today, with over 40 outbreaks since 1976. There have been two outbreaks in 2014. They both were near Portugal and had over ten deaths. The outbreak in Philadelphia still holds the record for highest death rate.
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