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Everything you need to know about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Sydney

This week, the New South Wales government has issued an alert for symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease after a recent outbreak in Sydney. Here’s what you need to know.

The new year has wasted no time in delivering a headline-worthy health crisis, with a small but mighty outbreak of a dangerous illness stirring up pandemonium in Sydney city. 

Legionnaires‘ disease, a potentially lethal variety of pneumonia, is described as an ‘infection of the lungs caused by Legionella bacteria,’ according to NSW Health. With symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease often developing up to ten days from the time of exposure, the public is being urged to keep a close eye on their health.

So far, seven Sydney residents have presented with symptoms of the illness, with each case supposedly linked to exposure in the city’s central business district. So, how does a person succumb to the dangerous disease, and what symptoms should we be looking out for?

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How do you contract the disease?

Unlike other outbreaks we as a population have faced over the last decade, Legionnaires‘ disease follows a very specific pattern of contagion. 

Contraction of the disease can only occur when an individual inhales contaminated water droplets or dust, making an outbreak largely dependent on environmental factors. 

While many diseases are routinely spread across a community through person-to-person contact, Legionnaires‘ disease cannot be transmitted in this way.

In most cases, such as Sydney’s current outbreak, a person will contract the Legionella pneumophila bacteria from contaminated cooling towers of large buildings, where the microbes can lie dormant. Another strain, Legionella longbeachae bacteria is found in can contaminate soil or potting mix. 

What are the symptoms?

The disease itself can come with a slew of unpleasant symptoms impacting the entire body, such as fever, chills, cough and shortness of breath. People often also experience muscle aches, headaches, tiredness, loss of appetite and diarrhoea, according to NSW Health. 

In some cases, individuals will develop pneumonia. While most people who contract Legionnaires’ disease recover, the illness can be occasionally fatal. 

Many symptoms can often take up to ten days from the time of exposure to fully develop, making immediate diagnosis particularly tricky. Even so, the disease is diagnosed using a urine or sputum test and chest X-ray and is usually treated with antibiotics under hospital supervision. 

Patients with underlying respiratory problems, smokers, or people with serious health conditions are most at risk of developing pneumonia.

What precautions can we take?

Given the disease’s peculiar mode of contraction, regular monitoring and testing of cooling towers is the best precautionary measure for identifying and eradicating dormant Legionella bacteria in public places. 

Commercial and residential cooling towers are operated and maintained in compliance with the NSW Public Health Regulation 2022, where routine monthly testing is conducted by local health officials. 

In instances where bacteria is identified in an active cooling system, cleaning and corrective action are promptly made.  

If you believe you may have been exposed to a contaminated area, monitor your symptoms closely and seek medical attention should you develop a fever, cough or shortness of breath. 

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