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December 17, 2022

4 cases of Legionnaires' disease identified in Pennsauken, health officials say

Camden County investigators are trying to determine where people contracted the severe type of pneumonia, but risk to most residents remains low

Health News Legionnaire's Disease
Legionnaires disease Camden County Hush Naidoo Jade Photography/Unsplash

Four cases of Legionnaires' disease were identified in Pennsauken on Friday, Dec. 16, Camden County health officials said. Other cases have been reported throughout the county since October, but the risk to most residents remains low.

Four cases of Legionnaires' disease have been identified in Pennsauken, Camden County health officials said on Friday. Investigators are working to determine when and where the cluster of people contracted the severe form of pneumonia, as the source could be outside of the South Jersey town. 

Pennsauken or Camden County residents who develop respiratory symptoms including cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches, or headache should visit their health care provider as soon as possible for further evaluation. The health department has alerted providers in the area about the string of cases, and laboratory testing will be available to confirm diagnosis. 

"Right now, the overall risk of Legionnaires' disease among residents or visitors to Pennsauken is low," Pascal Nwako, a Camden County health officer, said in a news release. "And most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not develop the disease. However, people over the age of 50, especially those who smoke cigarettes, or people who have certain medical conditions, including weakened immune systems, chronic lung disease or other chronic health conditions, are at increased risk for Legionnaires' disease." 

Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease can take up to two weeks, so those who develop symptoms within two weeks of living or working in the area should seek medical attention. However, Nwako noted that residents and visitors should be aware that the symptoms of Legionnaires' disease are similar to many common symptoms of COVID-19, so lab testing is necessary to determine an exact diagnosis. 

Unlike COVID-19, Legionnaires' disease is a bacterial infection, meaning it can be treated with a course of antibiotics. 

Legionnaires' disease is not spread through person-to-person contact, according to Mayo Clinic. Rather, the infection is contracted by breathing in small droplets of water containing Legionella bacteria. This water can come from cooling towers, hot tubs, fountains, and plumbing systems. While air conditioning units in large buildings can spread the bacteria, residential air conditioning units are not a risk for Legionella growth, officials said. 

Though not common, some people can contract Legionnaires' from aspirating tap water containing the bacteria, which happens when drinking water accidentally goes into the lungs. 

"Although cases have occurred among residents of Pennsauken, the source of Legionella exposure could have been outside this area," Nwako said. "Any identified sources that are confirmed to have and be able to spread the bacteria will be remediated to prevent further infection." 

Other cases have been identified in Camden County since October, Nwako told 6ABC, but these four cases appeared as a cluster. Anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms associated with Legionnaires' disease should seek medical attention, and should rule out COVID-19 infection before being tested for the severe form of pneumonia. 

The Cape May County Health Department is also working to investigate a confirmed case of Legionnaires' disease that was reported at Woodbine Developmental Center, a residential facility that serves men with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Courier Post reported. Officials are testing water samples at the facility to determine a cause. 

In 2019, at least 22 people in Union County were infected with Legionnaires' disease, which resulted in the deaths of five older adult residents of the north-central county. 

An outbreak of Legionnaires' in Philadelphia at the 58th convention of the American Legion in 1976 infected 221 people and resulted in the deaths of 34 people, nearly all of them resulting from Legionnaires'. The bacteria had spread through the Bellevue Hotel's air conditioning system. 

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