NJDOH investigating cluster of Legionnaires’ disease cases in Union County

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The New Jersey Department of Health is investigating a cluster of Legionnaires’ disease cases in Union County. The department is aware of 14 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease, including one death, among individuals who live in or spend time in the county.

The cases were reported to the department between Wednesday, Feb. 3, and Friday, Feb. 26. The department is working with the local health departments in Union County to investigate this cluster. The individual who died was a male resident of Union County in his late 60s.

“This is a continuing investigation. The risk to anyone who lives in Union County is very small,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Out of an abundance of caution, the department recommends that individuals who live in Union County who become ill with pneumonia-like/respiratory symptoms, such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headache, visit their health care provider.”

As it can take as long as two weeks for symptoms to develop, the NJDOH recommends that those who develop symptoms within two weeks of being in Union County also seek medical attention. The NJDOH has alerted health care providers in the area. Legionnaires’ disease is treatable with antibiotics.

The risk of Legionnaires’ disease among residents or recent visitors to Union County is small. Most healthy people exposed to legionella do not develop Legionnaires’ disease. People older than the age of 50, especially those who smoke cigarettes or those with certain medical conditions, including weakened immune systems, chronic lung disease or other chronic health conditions, are at increased risk for Legionnaires’ disease.

The NJDOH receives approximately 250-350 reports of Legionnaires’ disease each year. Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia or lung infection caused by bacteria called legionella. People can get Legionnaires’ disease by breathing in aerosolized or small droplets of water containing legionella bacteria. Aerosolized water can come from cooling towers or air-conditioning units for large buildings, hot tubs, cooling misters, decorative fountains and plumbing systems. Less commonly, people can get sick by aspiration of tap water containing legionella. This happens when water accidently goes into the lungs while drinking. People at increased risk of aspiration include those with swallowing difficulties. Home AC units do not use water to cool, so these home units do not aerosolize water and are not a risk for legionella growth. Legionnaires’ disease is not spread person-to-person.

As part of the continuing investigation, the department is conducting epidemiologic and environmental investigations to identify possible sources of exposures to the bacteria, conducting environmental sampling for legionella, and recommending environmental remediation strategies to prevent further transmission of legionella. Some potential sources have been identified and remediation has begun at those sites, but other sources may be identified as part of the ongoing investigation. Investigations into these types of Legionnaires’ clusters are complex. It is often not possible to determine the origin of the bacteria that infected people.

For more information, visit www.nj.gov/health/cd/topics/legion.shtml, which includes frequently asked questions on Legionnaires’ disease.