How deadly is Legionnaires’ disease? 10 people in Anaheim, CA have been hospitalized

Visiting the happiest place on earth isn’t supposed to lead to a possibly fatal disease, but that may be what happened in Anaheim, California’s Disneyland. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the park closed two contaminated cooling towers after it was discovered that people who visited Disneyland had developed Legionnaires’ disease. The towers contained a high level of Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, and 12 people in the Anaheim area were reported sick.

Jessica Good, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA), told CNN that nine people who had gone to Disneyland in September and three other people who had not visited the park contracted the disease. These 12 people were between the ages of 52 and 94. Out of the 12 people with Legionnaires’ disease, 10 were hospitalized and Good said that one of the people who had not been to Disneyland died. Good noted that patient who had died had other health issues beyond Legionnaires’ disease.

In a statement from November 10th that the LA Times shared, the chief medical officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Dr. Pamela Hymel, said:

"On Oct. 27, we learned from the Orange County Health Care Agency of increased Legionnaires’ disease cases in Anaheim. We conducted a review and learned that two cooling towers had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria...These towers were treated with chemicals that destroy the bacteria and are currently shut down."

As the CDC outlines, Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia that is caused when the Legionella bacteria contaminates freshwater. If that contaminated water is in droplets that are small enough for people to breathe in, like from a shower, hot tub, decorative fountain, or (as what may have occurred in Disneyland) an air conditioning cooling unit, then they can contract the respiratory disease.

As the Mayo Clinic reports in its overview of the disease, not everyone who is exposed to the Legionella bacteria will get sick. But if you smoke, have a weakened immune system, have a chronic lung disease, have another health condition like diabetes or cancer, or are over 50, you’re more likely to become infected, according to the Mayo Clinic.

If you get sick, Legionnaires’ disease could lead to different serious health complications like respiratory failure, septic shock, and acute kidney failure. Mayo Clinic explains:

“When not treated effectively and promptly, Legionnaires’ disease may be fatal, especially if your immune system is weakened by disease or medications.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote that 6,000 people were reported in the U.S. to have Legionnaires’ disease in 2015, but this number is probably higher since the disease is underdiagnosed. The CDC also wrote, “About one out of every 10 people who get sick from Legionnaires’ disease will die.” The CDC cited The New England Journal of Medicine report, “Probable Person-to-Person Transmission of Legionnaires’ Disease,” from 2016, as the source of this statistic.

While you shouldn’t be at any additional risk if you have an upcoming trip scheduled to Disneyland, especially if you are young and healthy, Legionnaires’ disease is serious and you should see a doctor immediately if you ever exhibit any lung infection symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, and headaches. Mayo Clinic also wrote, “Avoiding smoking is the single most important thing you can do to lower your risk of infection.”

So stay healthy and never ignore the signs that your body is giving you — not just to decrease your risk of Legionnaires’ disease, but to decrease contracting any other diseases this winter season.

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