British Columbia

Cluster of legionnaires' disease cases found in downtown New Westminster, B.C.

The Fraser Health authority says it has detected a cluster of cases of legionnaires’ disease in New Westminster, B.C.

Fraser Health advises people with pneumonia-like symptoms and chronic health problems to see a doctor

This 2009 colorized electron micrograph image provide shows a large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria which cause legionnaires' disease. (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control/Associated Press)

The Fraser Health authority says it has detected a cluster of cases of legionnaires' disease in central New Westminster. B.C.. 

Six cases have been discovered since June, with the most recent found last week. Two people are currently in hospital, but the health authority did not release their status.  

The source of the bacteria is still unknown, but Fraser Health says the exposure is around the downtown quay area. 

"It's unusual to be seeing a number of cases concentrated like this, and that's really the reason why we're investigating and also wanted to notify the public," said Dr. Aamir Bharmal, a Fraser Health medical health officer.

Bacteria found in the environment

Legionnaires' disease is caused by a bacterium called Legionella pneumophila that is commonly found in freshwater, groundwater and soil. It can grow and spread in building water systems like cooling towers, hot tubs that aren't drained, large plumbing systems and decorative fountains. 

People can get the disease when they breathe in small droplets of water in the air that contain the bacterium. 
 
Fraser Health says while most healthy people won't get sick if exposed to Legionella, the elderly, smokers, people with chronic lung conditions and the immunocompromised are at high risk of becoming ill.

"We really are seeing people who are between the ages of 50 to 70, and many of them have underlying medical conditions," said Bharmal.

Infected people may develop pneumonia and symptoms like fever, shortness of breath, severe fatigue, abdominal pain and diarrhea. 

The risk of death for people who develop legionnaires' disease pneumonia ranges between 10 to 25 per cent, according to Fraser Health.

Symptoms develop in 1 to 19 days

Bharmal says the incubation period for the disease is 19 days, and while people typically start to develop symptoms within five days.

Anyone who has been in New Westminster within 19 days of developing symptoms and has a high-risk condition is urged to seek medical attention. 

Bharmal says the Fraser Health region normally sees between four to 15 cases of Legionnaires in a year.

"The fact that in just one city we're seeing six cases in the last three months is the thing that is concerning, and we do need to figure out what the source is," said Bharmal.

A team has been doing an environmental assessment trying to find out which buildings have cooling towers, air conditioning units and decorative water features.

Both residential and commercial buildings are being considered as possible sources of the bacteria.  
 

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