SAN DIEGO –
“Improved testing and surveillance are needed to improve understanding of disease and outbreak burden,” Laura A. Cooley, MD, said at an annual scientific meeting on infectious diseases. “There is more to learn about environmental sources of Legionella for cases not associated with known outbreaks and about the distribution of Legionella in the environment.”
A Gram-negative bacillus, Legionella is an intracellular parasite of free-living protozoa primarily found in freshwater. “It can live and grow in biofilm, and there are more than 60 species of the bacterium,” she said at the combined annual meetings of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the HIV Medicine Association, and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society.
Cases are higher in the warmer months, and the rates are highest among the elderly, men, and those of black race. Currently, L. pneumophila accounts for about 90% of cases in the United States. “Once it’s transmitted, it has to hit a susceptible population to cause disease, generally older individuals and people with underlying conditions,” Dr. Cooley said.
A separate analysis evaluated Legionella cases reported among U.S. residents between 2005 and 2009 (). It found that only 4% were associated with outbreaks, and 96% were sporadic. “That doesn’t mean that [the cases] weren’t associated with the same kind of source, they just weren’t identified as an outbreak,” Dr. Cooley said. “It shows that there is a lot to learn about transmission of Legionella.”
Data from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System indicate that rates of Legionella continue to rise nationwide, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. “Why? It’s possible that there are differences in testing preferences and reporting preferences in this region of the country,” Dr. Cooley noted. “Maybe people are more tuned in to the potential for outbreaks, but there are reasons why there could be differences in disease, like differences in infrastructure, climate, population density, and cooling tower density.” CDC data from 2015 indicate that most cases are not associated with a known exposure, and that the case fatality rate differs by exposure type: 12% for cases reporting health care exposure during the 10 days before symptom onset (25% for definite cases), 9% for cases reporting assisted or senior living exposure, 7% when no specific exposure is reported, and 4% for cases reporting travel exposure ().
The U.S. case definition of Legionnaires’ disease consists of clinical or radiologic pneumonia plus confirmatory laboratory testing, either by urinary antigen test (UAT), lower respiratory culture, or appropriate serological testing. Polymerase chain reaction can be used as a presumptive test for a suspect case. “UAT is easy and it detects L. pneumophila serogroup 1 (Lp1), but it has some gaps,” Dr. Cooley said. “It isn’t completely sensitive for Lp1, and it doesn’t detect any other species or serogroups. That’s why we also recommend that a culture of respiratory secretions on selective media be performed at the same time. That being said, in the U.S., nearly all reported cases of Legionella are diagnosed by UAT only.”
A 2016 CDC MMWR and Vital Signs report found that almost all Legionella outbreaks could be prevented with effective water management, and the CDC has publishedto creating a water management program to reduce Legionella growth and spread in buildings. The found that definite health care–associated Legionnaires’ disease is deadly for one in four people who get it. The report also found that this issue is widespread; 76% of complete reporting jurisdictions reported at least one definite case of health care–associated Legionella disease in 2015. More recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued to reduce risk in health care facility water systems to prevent cases and outbreaks. It applies to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and critical access hospitals.
Dr. Cooley reported having no financial disclosures.