Springfield-Greene County Health Dept. advises Mercy cancer center patients of potential exposure to Legionella bacteria

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Legionnaires' Disease is a severe form of pneumonia with a 10% mortality rate caused by a bacterium known as Legionella, which grows in water sources from home humidifiers, C-pap machines, and hot tubs to heating and cooling units in large buildings.

"You can't get Legionella just from drinking water," explained Kendra Findley with the Springfield-Greene Co. Health Department. "It has to be breathed in-deep into your lungs."

Recently two individuals in the area were diagnosed with the illness.

"Both cases were associated with Mercy Springfield outpatient cancer center so the Department of Health went in and tested water samples," Findley explained.

A total of 19 water samples were taken in the building with four turning up positive for a type of Legionella species.

However, the species discovered was not the type usually associated with Legionnaires' Disease and did not match the the type the two individuals had contracted.

"There are actually 20 different species that can cause human disease," Findley said. "The two people who were ill, it was a different sub-species so we cannot tie their illness to that facility."

"Legionella can be found in multiple different sources across all public places," added Vicki Good, Mercy's Chief Quality Control Officer. "So hotels, your own water at home, there's numerous places this can be found. But we do not have any evidence that the Legionella sub-species that these patients were exposed to was present in our cancer center."

The Legionella samples did not involve the Mercy hospital facility itself or any other buildings other than the cancer center and local and state health officials say every precaution has been taken.

"Mercy has been incredibly proactive to take care of the issue," Findley said. "They hyper-chlorinated that water to make sure anything that was in that water system was killed."

"We want to make sure that anytime we have an opportunity to improve that we do that," Good said. "The CDC is very concerned about Legionnaires'. It's a very difficult illness to treat and because of that they're looking at this across the United States. Because we are a high-risk industry we're also a place that treats patients that are immunocompromised. We want to make sure we cooperate with them.to provide the safest environment possible for our patients."

So with that in mind, they also contacted 5,200 patients at the cancer center to tell them that if they have any of the illness' symptoms they should contact their physician or the health department.

Those symptoms are very much like the flu.

Headache, confusion, fever, chills, tiredness, muscle or body aches, coughs, shortness of breath, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

"If you're a healthy individual and you're exposed you probably will not become ill," Findley said. "It's only for those who are immune compromised."

"Such as cancer patients or the elderly patients," added Good. "For the general public this poses little or no risk whatsoever."

Officials say there's no reason to be alarmed, just aware.

"We tested several patients this weekend out of an abundance of caution," Good reported. "None of those patients tested positive."

If you do have the illness?

"Because it is a bacterial disease, it can be treated with antibiotics," Findley pointed out.