May 23, 2011: Health Center Employee Dies of Legionnaires' Disease
Walnut Creek, CA -- Experts are testing the water system at the Richmond Health Center after an employee there died of Legionnaires' disease.
The center remains open and no other cases of the disease have been identified, said Dr. William Walker, director of Contra Costa Health Services.
Test results are expected later this week.
Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia-like infection that is spread when people breathe in water mist contaminated with Legionella bacteria.
The bacteria, which occur naturally in the environment, live in water and can sometimes be found in hot tubs, air conditioning units in large buildings, decorative fountains, and water systems in cruise ships, hotels and hospitals.
Some people get it from breathing in the steam from a whirlpool spa that has not been properly cleaned and disinfected.
The disease is not contagious.
Contra Costa County typically has three to 10 cases per year. Nationally, 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized annually with the disease.
It may never be known where the medical records technician at the Richmond Health Center came in contact with the bacteria, Walker said.
But in 2008, after another Richmond Health Center employee became ill with Legionnaires' disease, tests indicated that water in the health center's cooling tower may have contained the bacteria.
Since then, the county has disinfected the heating and cooling system in the building regularly, Walker said.
The employee who fell ill in 2008 recovered, as do most people who contract the disease, which can be treated with antibiotics. Some people never have symptoms.
But Legionnaires' can be fatal in 5 percent to 30 percent of cases, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those who are at greatest risk include smokers, people who have a weakened immune system, those with chronic lung disease, and the elderly.
Legionnaires' disease can be difficult to diagnose initially because symptoms can be similar to the flu. About two to 10 days after becoming infected, people may develop a fever, chills, cough, muscle aches and headache.
Walker advises anyone with such symptoms to see their doctor.
In the latest round of testing at the Richmond Health Center, Walker said it is likely that some of the water samples will contain the Legionella bacteria because it is commonly found wherever tests occur.
But he stressed that county leaders will take steps to eliminate it and he noted that there have been no other cases of Legionnaires' disease in the county this year.
"We consider the health center to be safe for both staff and patients," Walker said.
The health center, which has served Contra Costa residents since 1967 and sees about 7,000 patients monthly, will soon be replaced by a new, state-of-the-art facility.
On Friday, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will join county leaders in a groundbreaking ceremony for a $45 million center in San Pablo. The 53,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed by July 2012.
County leaders say the current building, the only one of eight county health centers that has never been replaced, has outlived its usefulness.
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