15 March 2007 | SPL News

By DOUG SWORD
doug.sword@heraldtribune.com

SARASOTA COUNTY -- Two local cases of Legionnaires' disease were confirmed Wednesday by the Sarasota County Health Department, which has a team of investigators trying to determine the source of the often fatal illness.

"Normally, for any outbreak of this type we're not only going to have a good number of investigators, but take a multiple disciplinary approach" to determine if these are isolated cases or if the bacteria has a single source, said Dr. Zenobia Brown, the department's acting executive medical director.

While Brown said she was precluded by law from revealing where the cases occurred, neighbors in The Landings subdivision in Sarasota County confirmed that health officials had interviewed them and that the whirlpool bath in the gated-community's club had been drained as a precaution.

The first case of Legionnaires,' a type of pneumonia, was discovered about 10 days ago and both victims are still hospitalized.

The Centers for Disease Control say there are between 8,000 and 18,000 cases a year and Brown says there are, on average, five cases a year in Sarasota County.

Legionnaires' has a mortality rate of around 20 percent, but if identified, there is a "very effective antibiotic therapy," said Janet Stout, a University of Pittsburgh microbiologist, who specializes in the disease.

The problem is the disease's similarity to a far more common types of pneumonia. A physician must suspect Legionnaires' and order a specific test. Only about 5 percent of people exposed to the bacteria develop symptoms, although the elderly and people with an underlying health problem are more susceptible, Stout said.

The vast majority of Legionnaires' cases are isolated, and multiple cases can indicate the existence of a single source. "When two or more cases occur, that's when it triggers an investigation to identify the source," said Stout, noting that Legionnaires' disease is not contagious.

That source is water, as in the case of a Louisiana grocery store where a misting machine was spewing out the bacteria, Stout said.

Since the source hasn't been determined yet, residents are "kind of nervous," said Shirley Brodsky, who lives on Landings Boulevard.

Adding to her own personal concerns about the disease, Brodsky noted that she lived in Philadelphia in 1976 when the disease got its name after an outbreak of 122 cases at an American Legion conference.

"We're kind of upset about it that it should happen here and that there are people that are in the hospital," Brodsky said.

"From those two patients' perspective, it's a serious disease," the health department's Brown said. "From the health department perspective, our job is to find out if there's a serious public health threat."

The most common sources are hot tubs or air-conditioning cooling towers, but it's possible these two cases are isolated and there isn't a single source, Brown said.

If there is a source, Sherman Wolfson, another Landings resident, hopes they find it soon.

Residents say health department officials seem to be taking a methodical and urgent approach as they interview people.

After finding out that Wolfson was recently ill, officials interviewed him and looked at his hospital records to confirm that he hadn't had Legionnaires' disease.

"They checked me out to see if I'd had it," Wolfson said.

Reprinted by permission from the Herald Tribune.