NEW JERSEY – New Jersey health officials are warning of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in parts of the state that has sickened dozens of people.
The state Department of Health said 21 people in Middlesex County and 20 in Union County were sick and tested positive for Legionella, the bacteria that causes illness. The tests were conducted between August 3 and October 24, between the onset of symptoms.
Health officials said Middlesex and Union counties typically see only six to eight confirmed cases among veterans at the same time each year. The health department is working with local officials to find the possible source of infection, which has not yet been determined and may be difficult to trace.
“Early diagnosis is key to effective treatment of Legionnaires’ disease,” said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Caitlan Baston. “Although the risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease remains low if you live in or have recently visited Middlesex or Union counties, people who develop pneumonia-like respiratory symptoms should see a health care provider immediately for evaluation.”
Health officials clarified that no deaths had been reported, only that people had fallen ill. Anyone experiencing symptoms should seek medical evaluation as soon as possible.
The health department says the state receives 250 to 375 cases of Legionnaires’ disease each year.
What is Legionnaires’ disease?
The state Department of Health says Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia, or lung infection.
Legionella can also cause a mild illness called Pontiac fever, with symptoms similar to flu-like symptoms.
How does it spread?
Legionella spreads when people inhale tiny droplets of contaminated water, which are commonly found in hot tubs, industrial air conditioning systems, decorative fountains, plumbing systems and even drinking water.
Outbreaks often occur in large, complex water systems in places such as hotels, hospitals and cruise ships.
The bacteria can also live and spread in soil, occasionally causing infections when people garden with contaminated soil.
However, in most cases, people do not spread Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac fever to others.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease usually appear 2 to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria and may include:
- Muscle pain
- Difficulty breathing
The New Jersey Department of Health notes that symptoms may be similar to other respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 and influenza. Only tests ordered by a doctor can confirm the diagnosis.
Who is most at risk?
Those most vulnerable to Legionnaires’ disease are adults over 50, people with weakened immune systems or chronic medical conditions, and smokers.
Legionnaires’ disease is rare in healthy people who are exposed to Legionella bacteria.
Can it be treated?
Antibiotics are used to treat Legionnaires’ disease, but hospitalization is usually required.
Anyone who suspects they have been exposed to Legionella or who develops symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease or pneumonia should contact their doctor immediately. It is important to mention any exposure to Legionella in the past two weeks, hot tub use, recent travel, or hospitalization.
For more information about Legionnaires’ disease, visit the CDC website.