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Rash of Legionnaire’s Disease cases baffles local health officials

An unexpected outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in Erie and Niagara counties in the past two months has health officials searching for the cause, so far unsuccessfully.

In Erie County, there were 38 reported cases in June and 18 so far in July, spokesman Peter Anderson said. Last year, there were only five cases in each month.

“We typically see more cases of Legionnaire’s Disease in the summer, but this year, there has been much more than usual,” said Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner.

Although the number of cases in July so far reflects an increase over past years, it also reflects a decrease by nearly half from June, she noted.

“We’re hopeful that this is a trend of a decreasing number of cases,” she said.

Niagara County had 16 cases in June alone, followed by three more this month, according to Kathleen Cavagnaro, director of nursing services for the Niagara County Health Department. The county averages six cases of what’s officially called legionellosis in a whole year,

Legionnaire’s Disease is a bacterial illness that causes pneumonia, which can be treated with certain antibiotics. Smokers, elderly people and people with chronic lung conditions are especially susceptible.

“It is not something you catch from people,” Burstein said. “It’s through inhaling water droplets, through air conditioners or swimming pools.”

Hot tubs that are not properly cleaned and disinfected can become contaminated with the bacterium, according to information from the Erie County Health Department.

Cavagnaro speculated that the wet summer weather might have something to do with the spike in legionellosis cases. She said the bacterium can be found in rain puddles.

“Usually, it’s not enough to make you sick,” Cavagnaro said. “Usually, people who get legionellosis are immuno-suppressed or have diabetes.”

Six of the 16 Niagara County cases in June had such risk factors, according to a report Cavagnaro presented to the Niagara County Board of Health.

“All of our cases have been hospitalized. There have been no deaths,” she said. “The most cases have been in the Town of Lockport.”

But cases also came from the City of Lockport, Gasport, Sanborn and Niagara Falls. The first case of legionellosis in Niagara County was reported June 9, and the total steadily mounted for the rest of the month, with no more than two new reports on any single day. The last case, so far, was reported July 17.

In Erie County, the greatest number of cases have been in Buffalo, which has the biggest population, Burstein said. Cases have been spread throughout the county, with the greatest number in areas with the biggest populations, she said.

Despite numerous interviews with those affected, the Erie County Health Department has not been able to identify any commonalities among the cases, she said.

“There doesn’t seem to be any sort of connection we could put our finger on,” she said.

Likewise, Niagara County officials have been unable to identify any common source of the bacterium for the current crop of patients, Cavagnaro said. The county and state health departments are investigating.

Legionnaire’s Disease got its name from a July 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in a Philadelphia hotel. Twenty-five convention attendees, mostly older men, died within a week of returning home, and more than 130 were hospitalized. The eventual death toll was 34, out of a total of 221 cases.

The source of the bacterium was found to be the cooling tower for the hotel’s air conditioning system.

A similar respiratory disease, called Pontiac fever after the Michigan city where it was first identified in 1968, also comes from a strain of the same bacterium.

Warm water, in particular, is a breeding ground for the bacterium.