State: Spike in Legionnaires following Flint water switch

This undated file image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria (Legionnaires' disease). (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)
This undated file image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria (Legionnaires' disease). (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)

FLINT, Mich. (WOOD)— State officials are encountering a new health issue that may be related to drinking water in Genesee County.

According to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells, cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County more than quadrupled since June 2014.

Flint switched from Detroit’s water system to Flint River water in a cost-cutting move that same year.However, the health department said no clinical samples of the bacteria were taken from case patients, so it the spike cannot be directly linked to the water switch.

While the additional cases of Legionnaires have not been linked to Flint’s water system, Governor Snyder said the state wanted to release the preliminary data immediately.

Wells said Genesee County normally sees 8 to 10 cases of Legionnaires’ disease each year. However, between June 2014 and March 2015, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed 45 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the county, including seven deaths. Of those cases, 47 percent of patients had Flint city water at home, while more than half of those affected were exposed to Legionnaires at a healthcare facility, the state health department said. It’s unclear if those healthcare facilities were using Flint water.

Health officials said ten people with Legionnaire’s disease had no exposure to a Flint hospital or the Flint water system during the incubation period.

From May 2015 to November 2015, 42 cases of Legionnaires’ disease, including one case of Pontiac fever were reported in Genesee County. Three people died. Health officials are still compiling a list of how those patients may have been exposed to the bacteria.

The state health department said those diagnosed with Legionnaires in Genesee County were between the ages of 26 and 94.  They said normally people over age 50, current or former smokers, those with chronic lung disease and people with a weakened immune system are at higher risk of getting sick.

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia that can be deadly. It’s caused by the bacterium Legionella, which can live in all kinds of water, including drinking water.  The bacteria grows best in warm water. Legionella can also lead to lung infections and a less serious infection called Pontiac fever.  It cannot spread through person-to-person contact.

Wells said the increase in cases in Genesee County are cause for concern, and the state health department is working with federal agencies to address the issue.

Wells said the state’s recommendations for bathing in Genesee County are not changing.

The health department said it noticed an increase in cases of Legionnaire’s Disease in fall 2014 and offered help to the county health department.  The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it stepped in to help the county in January 2015 and began investigating cases in April.

HOW YOU CAN HELP FLINT RESIDENTS

The United Way of Genesee County is taking donations to pay for bottled water, filters and prevention efforts in Flint, as the city deals with a lead water crisis.Donations can be made online.

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