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Legionnaires’ disease most often non-fatal nowadays, officials say

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail
Vestal Harper of Charleston recently spent about 20 days in the hospital after contracting Legionnaires' disease.

While Legionnaires’ disease sparked panic in 1976, most people who get the disease today will survive, according to health officials.

The Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever, was discovered in 1976 after an outbreak among people who went to an American Legion convention in Philadelphia.

A total of 34 people died, according to the New York Times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that about 5,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease continue to be reported each year in the United States. The CDC also reports about one in 10 who get the disease will die from it.

Nowadays, health care providers are better at detecting and treating the disease, said Janet Briscoe, epidemiology and emergency preparedness at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

“People are getting treated sooner,” she said. “It’s identified sooner, so the rates of death are a lot less than what they were in the past.”

Allison Adler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Resources, reported the disease “is not very common in West Virginia.” A total of 36 cases were reported in the state in 2015, she said. From 2008 to 2014, the lowest number of reported cases was 11, in 2009, and the highest was 49, in 2014. From 2008 to 2015, there were 233 confirmed cases in West Virginia. Of those, 10 people died.

In Kanawha County, there were 38 cases from 2011 to 2017, according to John Law, spokesman for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Of those, two were in 2017.

Vestal Harper, who was raised in Clendenin and lives in Charleston, recently survived the disease.

Harper, 71, said he was admitted to CAMC Memorial on Jan. 18, placed in intensive care and released on Feb. 7.

Harper said he does not know the source, but has suspicions.

“It would be nice to know where it came from,” he said.

People get Legionnaires’ disease when they breathe in a mist or vapor that has been contaminated with Legionella, Law said. The bacteria are not spread from person to person.

“Legionella bacteria are found naturally in the environment, usually in water,” Law said. “The bacteria grow best in warm water, like the kind found in hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, large plumbing systems or parts of the air-conditioning systems of large buildings.” Signs of the disease include a high fever, chills and cough.

Briscoe said health department officials do interviews with people who have been diagnosed with the disease to determine if other people have been exposed to the same source, and they would do environmental testing in the event of an outbreak. There have been no outbreaks in Kanawha County since she started in 2009, and she isn’t aware of any outbreaks before then.

On Jan. 15, an urgent care center gave Harper antibiotics and medication to control fever for a respiratory infection, he said. The symptoms reminded him of “a really bad case of the flu,” he said.

On the night of Jan. 17, he coughed constantly. On the night of Jan. 18, he went upstairs to go to bed, and within a few minutes, he felt like he was having a heart attack and couldn’t breathe.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it there for a few minutes,” he said. His wife found him with a bright red face and called 911.

He said EMTs arrived within minutes, gave him oxygen and took him to the hospital.

“That’s the last I can remember for about 10 days really,” he said.

He was placed on life support and kept in the intensive care unit. He was taken off a ventilator on Jan. 27.

Health care providers anticipated he would need a walker for about four weeks but he was running up and down the stairs in two weeks, he said.

“They didn’t think I’d recover this fast,” he said.

Law noted that many cases are not diagnosed or reported. Some people suffer no symptoms.

Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics, he said. Healthy people usually recover from the infection.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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