Legionnaires’ disease cases surge in Michigan, but not in Flint
Michigan is experiencing an increase this year in Legionnaires’ disease cases, but is reporting no cases of the respiratory disease in the Flint area, where an outbreak killed 12 people during the past two years, state health officials said Friday.
Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services made the disclosure as state health officials urged residents to take precautions against Legionnaires’ disease as Michigan enters the warmer part of the year when cases normally begin to rise.
Legionnaires’ disease is caused by a certain bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia. The bacteria can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs, air-conditioning units in large buildings and fountains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state has reported 51 confirmed cases so far in 2016, a 21 percent jump from the 42 cases confirmed around the same time last year. The number for 2014 was 41 cases.
More than half of Michigan’s 2016 cases are from the tri-county Metro Detroit area, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
But Genesee County has seen no new confirmed cases of Legionnaires’, although the disease is most typically an issue in the summer and early fall, according to the CDC.
The lack of reported disease cases in the Flint area counters the fear of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint task force, which in mid-January predicted another surge in Legionnaires’ this spring in Genesee County. It recommended Flint’s health care facilities extend disinfection safeguards to all air treatment and cooling systems.
“While many factors can influence reporting of LD, including increased clinical awareness, this number exceeds the average year to date count for Michigan in recent years,” state health officials said Friday in a press release.
“At this time, there is no indication of a common source for these infections. Local health departments continue to evaluate information gathered from existing patients and rapidly assess any new reports.”
There was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ in the Flint area starting in 2014 that sickened 79 people and killed 12. Forty-five cases resulting in five deaths were reported for the June 2014-March 2015 period and 46 cases resulting in seven deaths for the May-October 2015 period.
The outbreak generated outrage when Snyder belatedly made it public on Jan. 13.
But state health officials don’t expect the Flint area to avoid Legionnaires’ cases for the entire year.
“There are many counties with no reported cases yet,” said Jennifer Eisner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We fully anticipate Genesee and other counties reporting cases in the near future.”
At least one Legionnaires’ expert has said the 2014-15 Genesee County spike is probably linked to Flint’s switch from the Detroit water system to drawing its water from the Flint River, a harsher water that caused lead pipes to leach the toxic metal into the water system.
The city’s failure to treat river water with corrosion control chemicals between April 2014 and October 2015 is seen as a possible trigger for the rise in local cases. State Department of Environmental Quality officials failed to recommend the chemicals, deciding to wait instead for two six-month studies of water testing results.
State health officials have said a “strain match” is needed “to make a definitive statement on environmental causation” of Legionnaires’, but it’s impossible to identify the strain because Legionella samples were never kept from the patients who had Legionnaires’.
Caused by Legionella bacteria, Legionnaires’ disease sends between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States to hospitals for treatment each year. The disease can be deadly if it goes untreated.
The number of U.S. Legionnaires’ cases has increased most years since 2003. The CDC attributes the rise to more testing and the possible increased transmission of the disease.
“This is something we’re monitoring as national data becomes available so we can compare our rates to national trends,” Eisner said. “At this point, we do suspect that due to heightened awareness, increased testing may be occurring as well.”
State health officials urge the following steps to help prevent the spread of Legionnaires’:
■Adults 65 and older should receive the two recommended pneumonia vaccines available.
■All of those over the age of 6 months should get an annual flu shot.
■Make sure hot tubs and pools are properly treated with disinfectant chemicals.
■People who develop pneumonia-like symptoms should see a doctor for treatment.
Flint and Genesee County residents this year were instructed to take extra precautions because of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.
Even though no cases have been reported in Genesee this year, residents there are instructed to take additional steps, including:
■Disinfecting home shower heads with a mixture of household bleach and water.
■Humidifiers and water heaters should be cleaned and disinfected according to manufacturer’s specifications.