Eight individuals who stayed at the luxury J.W. Marriott Hotel in the financial district of Chicago between July 16 and August 15 have contracted a respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria. The Marriott is a historic Daniel Burnham building renovated just two years ago. At least two of the Chicago sufferers have died from complications, the Chicago Department of Public Health reported yesterday (Monday, August 27).
The illness is spread by breathing in a warm mist or vapor contaminated with Legionella. It does not travel from person to person. The potentially lethal gram-negative, aerobic bacteria were first investigated in July 1976, when 180 people attending a convention of the American Legion at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia came down with pneumonia and 34 died. In Philadelphia, working with an unknown disease, health care workers gave patients a suite of antibiotics (penicillins, cephalosporins, and aminoglycosides) that turned out to be inappropriate.
With quick identification of the bacteria and adminstration of the right drugs, deaths can usually be limited to about 5% of those exposed.
SYMPTOMS: Some people can be infected with the Legionella bacteria and have only mild symptoms or no illness at all. The disease may develop from several days to two weeks after exposure. Symptoms can include headache, muscle pain, fever, chills, shortness of breath, cough, and chest pain. Fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and confusion or other mental changes may also occur. Legionnaires’ disease, also known as “legion fever,” the potentially lethal form of the infection, produces fever of 104 degrees or higher and pneumonia.
Middle-aged and older people who smoke cigarettes or have chronic lung disease, and also the immunocompromised, have a higher risk of contracting full-blown Legionnaires’ disease. Pontiac fever, a lesser threat from the same bacteria, can come on in a few hours. It produces no pneumonia, only a milder flu-like respiratory illness that resolves quickly. About 8,000 to 18,000 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease occur each year in the United States.
Although Chicago public health officials say that the threat from Legionella seems to have lessened, and no cases outside the month-long time frame have been reported, they and the hotel are notifying 8,500 guests who stayed at the Marriott during that period. CDPH has set up a hotline to answer questions from those who may have been exposed to the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control have confirmed that the bacteria could have grown in water and spread through vapor in either the hotel’s air conditioning duct system or its fountain, pool, and whirlpool spa, which the hotel has now emptied and cleaned.
Legionellosis has also broken out recently in Lower Québec City, Canada, with 107 cases and eight deaths confirmed as of late Sunday. Officials believe the Canadian illness probably came from the cooling systems of two large towers, where the bacteria can grow in the stagnant water and spread the mist through the air conditioning vents. One hundred buildings in Québec have been disinfected so far.
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