CLOSE

In light of the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City, here are five facts you need to know about the disease.
USA TODAY

Legionella-related illnesses are on the rise in Michigan, state health officials warned Monday. 

The state has seen a nearly 30 percent increase this year in the number of people who contracted legionellosis, which includes Legionnaires’ disease and the milder Pontiac fever, compared with this time in 2017, according to new data released Monday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency reported 139 confirmed cases from Jan. 1 to July 6 in 33 Michigan counties. That compares with 107 cases by July 6, 2017. And it’s nearly double the number of total cases reported during the same time two years ago, when 79 people statewide were sicked by legionellosis.

RELATED:

MDHHS spokeswoman Lynn Suftin said the increase doesn’t qualify as an outbreak, and noted the statewide uptick in cases of legionella-related infections follows a national trend.

“The incidence of Legionnaires’ disease is increasing both nationally and in Michigan in a similar trend line,” she said. “However, the incidence of disease in Michigan remains consistently higher than the national average.”

The reason? The weather, Suftin said.

“Michigan and the rest of the country are experiencing long stretches of hot, humid weather,” she said. “Warm, stagnant waters present the best environment for bacterial growth.”

Legionella-related illnesses almost always are higher in the summer and early fall because warmer temperatures provide a breeding ground for legionella bacteria, which are found naturally in lakes and streams, but can also grow in places like hot tubs, fountains, cooling towers, spas and water systems. When water droplets, mist or vapor carrying the bacteria are inhaled, they can infect the lungs and make people sick.  

Hardest hit this year is Wayne County, which has seen 40 confirmed cases, of which 15 were in the city of Detroit. There have been 17 confirmed cases in Macomb County, 17 in Oakland County, and 10 in Genesee County.

Legionnaires’ disease can be deadly, especially when it infects vulnerable people, such as those older than 50; smokers and former smokers; those with chronic lung diseases; people with weakened immune systems because of other illnesses such as diabetes, cancer or kidney failure, and people who take immunosuppressant medications. 

“There’s not a vaccine or a pill or anything you can take to prevent this,” Suftin said. “If you do have any of these water features or a hot tub or recent plumbing work done, make sure things are sanitized. Make sure things are clean. if you are in a risk group, it’s something to be aware of and keep tabs on.”

Suftin said information about the number of people who have died of legionella-related illnesses so far this year still isn’t available; hospitalization data also have not been compiled. 

This year’s cases appear to be sporadic, Suftin said, with the exception of three tied to Wayne State University. 

Earlier this year, two contractors working on the construction of new apartments at Wayne State contracted Legionnaires’ disease along with an employee of the university’s Faculty Administration Building. 

In June, the university reported that legionella was discovered in cooling towers for three campus buildings and in three bathrooms — a first-floor men’s room in Scott Hall, a men’s restroom in the Cohn Building and a third in the Faculty Administration Building.

RELATED:

“As a result of these findings, the university will continue comprehensive testing of campus, including potable water, to ensure all water sources are safe,” the university said in a statement at the time. “The expert consultants will return to campus this weekend to continue sampling.” 

Suftin said the MDHHS is working with the City of Detroit’s Health Department to oversee management of Wayne State’s water systems and is following up in each case of legionella-related illness

“As cases are reported, MDHHS and local health (officials) are diligently investigating each case to help determine the cause and if there is a common source that needs to be addressed to prevent future infections,” Suftin said.

“In addition, we are working to increase awareness about legionellosis and urging building owners and managers to make sure potable water systems, cooling towers, whirlpool spas and decorative fountains are cleaned and maintained properly.”

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease usually begin two to 10 days after exposure and can include cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

Read or Share this story: https://on.freep.com/2urd7zJ