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2 dead in Chicago Legionnaires’ disease outbreak

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – Two people have died after contracting Legionnaires’ disease in an outbreak linked to a downtown hotel this summer, Chicago Department of Public Health officials said Monday.

The two were among eight people who came down with the disease after staying in the JW Marriott in July and this month.

None of the eight who contracted the disease live in, or are being treated, in the Chicago area. City officials would not provide any further information about them, citing privacy laws. The conditions of the six surviving people who caught the disease are not known.

The city health department and hotel officials announced three cases of the disease last week. At the time, the hotel said it had mailed letters about the outbreak to an estimated 65 percent of the 8,500 guests who had stayed at the hotel between July 16 and Aug. 15.

As of Monday, 80 percent of those guests had been notified and the hotel is trying to reach the rest, Marriott spokesman Jeff Flaherty said. Current guests are being informed of the outbreak, although the health department says there is “no ongoing health risk at the hotel.”

Because the Legionella bacteria that cause the disease is usually found in water, the hotel drained its pool, whirlpool and fountain and closed parts of its spa. Water can be tested for Legionella, but such testing is expensive and can take weeks to receive results.

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia characterized by headache, high fever, chills, cough, chest pain and shortness of breath. It is not spread from person to person. Most people exposed to the Legionella bacteria do not become ill, but the elderly, smokers and people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable.

Between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year with Legionnaires’disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease can be fatal for 5 to 30 percent of those who became sick, the CDC said.

In 2010, eight people contracted Legionnaires’ disease through a decorative fountain at a Wisconsin hospital. All survived. Thomas Haupt, a respiratory epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Division of Public Health who led a study of that outbreak.

“Legionella bacteria is everywhere,” Haupt said. “Any time you have warm water, if you look hard enough, you could find Legionella.”

Haupt said the Wisconsin fountain became a conduit for the bacteria in part because it was adjacent to a fireplace and heated by lamps.

The bacteria got its name after a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, where 221 people were infected and 34 died.

People who have stayed at the JW Marriott in Chicago and are experiencing symptoms associated with Legionnaires’ disease or been diagnosed with pneumonia should contact their doctors, health officials said. Those who might have been exposed can also call a public health hotline at 312-746-4835 on weekdays.

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