4 cases of legionnaires' disease reported in New Brunswick

Front-line physicians in New Brunswick have been asked to be on the lookout for legionnaires' disease after four recent cases in the southeastern part of the province.

Doctors asked to be on the lookout for the severe form of pneumonia after recent 'unusual' spike

There's been a recent spike of legionnaires' disease in southeastern New Brunswick and health officials aren't sure why.

Legionnaires' disease is caused when water contaminated with certain bacteria, shown here in a colourized electron micrograph, are inhaled into the lungs. (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control/Associated Press)
Four cases of the disease — a severe pneumonia  — have been reported since mid-June.

Dr. Yves Leger, the regional medical officer of heath, says that's an unusually high number.

But as it stands, there is nothing that links the four cases.

"All of them have some potential exposures or risks for becoming exposed to legionnaires' disease. But nothing that is in common to all of the four specifically," said Leger.

People can get the disease if they inhale steam or mist containing the bacteria that causes the illness, but no one has been known to pass on the infection to others, he said.

Dr. Yves Leger talks about the unusual spike of this severe form of pneumonia. 6:50

Can be fatal if untreated

Front-line physicians in the province have been asked to be on the lookout for legionnaires' disease, which is treated with antibiotics, but can be fatal if left untreated.

"One of the things we did initially was send a letter to all health-care providers to inform them of this recent increase and to provide them with guidance and advice and make sure they are aware and vigilant to help us find any cases, if there were any out there," said Leger.

He says a specific test is required to confirm the disease and should be requested for any suspected cases.

The most commonly used laboratory test for diagnosis is from a urine specimen.

Average of 2 cases per year

On average, two cases of legionnaires' disease are reported in New Brunswick each year, according to the Department of Health's website.

Legionella bacteria can be found in natural water sources, such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but can also survive and multiply in man-made aquatic systems.

Outbreaks have been linked to a range of microscopic water droplet sources, including:

  • Cooling towers in air conditioning systems.

  • Water systems in hotels, hospitals and nursing homes.

  • Swimming pools, hot tubs and whirlpools.

  • Physical therapy equipment.

A few people have also contracted the disease after working in the garden or using contaminated potting soil.

Not everyone who is exposed to legionella bacteria becomes sick. People who have an impaired immune system or chronic underlying illness are at increased risk of infection.

Symptoms usually start between two and 10 days after exposure to the bacteria.

They can initially include headache, muscle pain, chills, and fever.

Subsequent symptoms may include:

  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Confusion or other mental changes.

Legionella bacteria can also cause Pontiac fever, a milder illness that resembles the flu. It doesn't infect the lungs and can clear on its own, without any treatment.

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