Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. The bacterial species responsible for Legionnaires' disease is L. pneumophila. Major symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, and a cough that is initially nonproductive. Definitive diagnosis relies on specific laboratory tests for the bacteria, bacterial antigens, or antibodies produced by the body's immune system. As with other types of pneumonia, Legionnaires' disease poses the greatest threat to people who are elderly, ill, or immunocompromised.
Legionella bacteria were first identified as a cause of pneumonia in 1976, following an outbreak of pneumonia among people who had attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This eponymous outbreak prompted further investigation into Legionella and it was discovered that earlier unexplained pneumonia outbreaks were linked to the bacteria. The earliest cases of Legionnaires' disease were shown to have occurred in 1965, but samples of the bacteria exist from 1947.
Exposure to the Legionella bacteria doesn't necessarily lead to infection. According to some studies, an estimated 5-10% of the American population show serologic evidence of exposure, the majority of whom do not develop symptoms of an infection. Legionella bacteria account for 2-15% of the total number of pneumonia cases requiring hospitalization in the United States.
There are at least 40 types of Legionella bacteria, half of which are capable of producing disease in humans. A disease that arises from infection by Legionella bacteria is referred to as legionellosis. The L. pneumophila bacterium, the root cause of Legionnaires' disease, causes 90% of legionellosis cases. The second most common cause of legionellosis is the L. micdadei bacterium, which produces the Philadelphia pneumonia-causing agent.
Approximately 10,000-40,000 people in the United States develop Legionnaires' disease annually. The people who are the most likely to become ill are over age 50. The risk is greater for people who suffer from health conditions such as malignancy, diabetes, lung disease, or kidney disease. Other risk factors include immunosuppressive therapy and cigarette smoking. Legionnaires' disease has occurred in children, but typically it has been confined to newborns receiving respiratory therapy, children who have had recent operations, and children who are immunosuppressed. People with HIV infection and AIDS do not seem to contract Legionnaires' disease with any greater frequency than the rest of the population, however, if contracted, the disease is likely to be more severe compared to other cases.
Cases of Legionnaires' disease that occur in conjunction with an outbreak, or epidemic, are more likely to be diagnosed quickly. Early diagnosis aids effective and successful treatment. During epidemic outbreaks, fatalities have ranged from 5% for previously healthy individuals to 24% for individuals with underlying illnesses. Sporadic cases (that is, cases unrelated to a wider outbreak) are harder to detect and treatment may be delayed pending an accurate diagnosis. The overall fatality rate for sporadic cases ranges from 10-19%. The outlook is bleaker in severe cases that require respiratory support or dialysis. In such cases, fatality may reach 67%.
Julia Barrett, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,