Cases of Legionnaires' disease detected in the Merrimack Valley

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Oct. 6—Area cases of Legionnaires' disease, a type of severe pneumonia, are being investigated by public health officials.

Andover resident Scot Gabriel said he notified Felix Zemel, public health and inspectional services director for the city of Methuen, after learning a family member and a family friend both contracted Legionnaires' disease and were hospitalized in intensive care. His relative, age 61, died over the weekend, Gabriel said.

Gabriel also notified public health officials in New Hampshire after learning his family member and family friend dined separately at a Salem, New Hampshire, restaurant. However, a Department of Public Health spokesperson in New Hampshire said an "unusual occurrence of Legionella" has not been detected in the Salem area.

Legionnaires' disease is caused by breathing in small droplets containing Legionella, a bacteria which is found naturally in fresh water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zemel did not want to comment specifically on any cases due to the privacy laws surrounding health care, but did say officials are "aware of cases in the area." Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Monday would not comment on how many Legionnaires' cases have been reported locally recently.

However, speaking generally about the disease, Zemel said an uptick in Legionnaires' has been detected in recent years and may be connected to rapid weather changes.

He stressed that Legionnaires' is not transmittable between people, but is a waterborne disease. Possible infection sources include air conditioning units and hot tubs that are not properly maintained and issues with certain faucet and shower heads.

Zemel noted the "tell-tale symptom" of Legionnaires' disease is pneumonia, a similar symptom to COVID-19 which is transmittable from person to person.

Michael Armano, director of the Lawrence Board of Health, said the city is routinely notified about communicable diseases, including Legionnaires' recently.

"Lawrence has some cases ... but that's not unusual for Lawrence," Armano said.

Officials at the DPH in Massachusetts and local health departments routinely investigate reported cases of Legionnaires' disease. Isolated cases occur routinely and are not a cause for public concern, according to a statement from DPH.

"When multiple cases are linked to a single specific location, it may indicate a common source (such as an improperly maintained water system) in need of remediation. Investigations are ongoing to determine if and where any common sources may exist," according to DPH.

There were 49 cases of Legionnaires disease in the summer of 2018 at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. The cases were tied to inadequate maintenance of a hot tub, and other conditions, at the Sand's Resort, according to a state report.

At that time, the Massachusetts DPH noted the New Hampshire case generated concern about Legionnaires' in the neighboring state.

"While this outbreak appears to be linked to a common source of infection, isolated cases of Legionnaire's disease do not pose a general public health concern. States throughout the New England region are seeing increased numbers of these sporadic cases, likely due to the warm, humid weather we are experiencing this summer," according to a DPH alert.

Staff reporter Breanna Edelstein contributed to this report.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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