The mysterious pneumonia outbreak in Tucuman, Argentina, that I covered for Forbes yesterday, is not so mysterious any more. According to an update from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Argentina Ministry of Health has confirmed that Legionella bacteria is the cause of the outbreak that has now left 11 people ill and four dead.
Here’s a PAHO tweet with the update:
The update specifically mentioned Legionella pneumophila, which is one of a legion of different Legionella bacteria species that also includes L. longbeachae, L. feeleii, L. micdadei, and L. anisa. Legionella can hang out in amoebae that live in wet environments such as air conditioning systems, cooling towers, hot tubs, plumbing systems, humidifiers, ice-making machines, fountains, misting systems, whirlpool spas, ventilators, potting mixes, and composts. This is yet another reason why you shouldn’t shove potting mix or compost up your nose.
When the bacteria enters your lungs via your inhaling contaminated water droplets or soil, the result can be a milder illness called Pontiac Fever with symptoms developing a few hours to 3 days after exposure to the bacteria. Or a more severe illness, dubbed Legionnaire’s Disease, with symptoms developing two to 10 days after exposure. The severity of the illnesses in this outbreak suggests that it’s been an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. It’s called Legionnaire’s Disease not because it will turn you into a Legionnaire and wear those hats that they wear. Instead, as I described for Forbes in 2018, it got its name from where the bacteria was first identified: at a three-day American Legion convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1976.
Not everyone exposed to the Legionella bacteria will end up getting ill. You are more likely to develop Legionnaire’s Disease if you have a weaker immune system (e.g., 50 years or older, have a chronic disease, or are on medications that suppress the immune system) or weaker lungs (e.g., suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). That doesn’t mean that you should say, “bring it on,” to Legionella bacteria. Even if you are perfectly healthy, you can still get Legionnaire’s Disease, although the likelihood would be significantly less.
The key to treating Legionnaires’ disease is getting the right antibiotics as soon as possible. As the World Health Organization (WHO) relates, the overall death rate from Legionnaires’ disease is between 5 and 10%. However, this death rate can bounce up to 5 to 30% if you have a weaker immune system and even further up to 40 to 80% if you have don’t get proper treatment in time. That’s why doctors should look for evidence of Legionella in your urine, blood, or sputum as soon as should as Legionnaires’ disease is in any way suspected.
So the good news about this pneumonia outbreak in Tucuman, Argentina, is that it isn’t a oh-my-goodness-what-the-heck-is-going-on outbreak. Instead, it’s a oh-this-has-happened-before-such-as-in-Philadelphia-in-1976 outbreak. It also isn’t common for an infected person to transmit Legionella to another person, although there has been a documented case of that happening in the past. Therefore, the chances of Legionella spreading wildly in the population is very, very low. This certainly isn’t a situation where you should panic and start hoarding toilet paper. (In general, it’s unlikely that health authorities will ever say, “OK, everyone hoard toilet paper now.”) This Legionella outbreak is not the same as the Covid-19 pandemic situation. Or the monkeypox outbreak situation. In other words, this Legionella outbreak is not likely to spread far and wide.
That being said, authorities aren’t going to say something like YOLO and not continue to act with urgency. Now, they are trying to identify the source of the outbreak as soon as possible to prevent further people from getting sick. After all, you don’t want some water system to keep spraying Legionella into the air like a mist machine at a Phantom of the Opera show. The Argentina Ministry of Health and local health authorities have been collecting environmental samples in and around the private clinic in San Miguel de Tucumán in northwestern Argentina where the health care workers affected by the outbreak worked. This may help identify what needs a-fixing. They’ll want to make sure that there’s no more “airing” on the side of the Legionella bacteria.
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