St. Mary’s stresses early detection, treatment of Legionnaires’ disease

PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. MARY MEDICAL CANTER / A large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria under high 800x magification.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. MARY MEDICAL CENTER / A large grouping of Legionella  bacteria under high 800x magnification.

Summer’s the time for many things — including, sometimes, pneumonia.

Specifically, it’s a common time of year for outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, a severe type of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacterium. Already in Lower Bucks County, there have been four identified cases from an assisted facility living facility in Langhorne and one from the community.

While two of those cases have now been classified as Pontiac Fever, a less-severe manifestation of the disease, one elderly woman died in the recent outbreak.

Legionella is found naturally in freshwater environments, but thrives in warm water, making this a common time for it to spread. It becomes dangerous when it grows and spreads in man-made structures with standing water: hot tubs that aren’t drained properly, hot water tanks and heaters, large plumbing systems and decorative fountains.

Air conditioning units for large buildings, which use cooling towers, can cultivate the bacterium. Home and car air conditioners, however, don’t use water to cool the air and so don’t create a risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease mostly affects people over 50 years old, current or former smokers, people with chronic lung disease, or those with weakened immune systems. But, according to Dr. Ronald Goren, Director of Infection Prevention at St. Mary Medical Center, it’s also easy to detect and treat — especially if it’s caught early.

“If you get severe pneumonia, don’t sit around. Go to the ER,” he said.

The disease can be identified with a urine test and treated with antibiotics. But, those drugs are most effective when they’re used before the disease progresses too far, Goren noted.

Knowing about the disease can also help others avoid it. Cases aren’t always diagnosed, for instance if an elderly person dies from complications due to pneumonia. In the case of the assisted living facility, The Brunswick at Attleboro in Langhorne, the bacterium appeared to spread when the facility turned on its air conditioning unit during the warm weather a few weeks ago.

That’s partly why Goren, who saw a few of the Attleboro patients himself, encourages people to get checked if their cold or pneumonia symptoms worsen. It’s a disease, he said, that doctors will often and easily check for in these circumstances.

“This is not a mystery diagnosis,” he said. “It’s something we know about.”

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