About the Disease
Legionnaires' disease is a severe, often lethal, form of pneumonia. It's caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila found in both potable and nonpotable water systems. Each year, an estimated 10,000 to 18,000 people are infected with the Legionella bacteria in the United States.
It is not uncommon for patients with Legionnaires' disease to be admitted to the intensive care unit. Some will suffer long-term impaired health-related quality of life. A study of outbreak survivors showed persistence of fatigue (75%), neurologic symptoms (66%) and neuromuscular symptoms (63%) in months after an outbreak. See Share Your Story for a first-hand account of the severity of this disease.
How do people contract Legionella?
The most popular theory is that the organism is aerosolized in water and people inhale the droplets containing Legionella. However, new evidence suggests that another way of contracting Legionella is more common. "Aspiration" is the most common way that bacteria enter into the lungs to cause pneumonia. Aspiration means choking such that secretions in the mouth get past the choking reflexes and instead of going into the esophagus and stomach, mistakenly, enter the lung. The protective mechanisms to prevent aspiration is defective in patients who smoke or have lung disease. Aspiration now appears to be the most common mode of transmission.