Disease scare


A COFFS HARBOUR woman who is gravely ill in the intensive care unit (ICU) of Coffs Harbour Health Campus is being treated for legionnaire's disease.

Greg Bell, the director of the North Coast Public Health Unit in Lismore, said while confirmation was not straightforward, preliminary tests indicated the woman did have legionnaire's disease.

He said as was normal medical practice in severe cases, the woman, who is in her 50s, had been put into a medically-induced coma.

The coma gives the intravenous antibiotic treatments for the disease the best chance of success.

Mr Bell said tests so far indicated the strain of Legionella bacteria involved was a pneumophila strain, found generally in water or as an aerosol, as in spas or air-conditioning systems, rather than a longbeachae strain, which is commonly found in potting mix.

Mr Bell said no other cases had been reported on the North Coast, but the Public Health Unit would be looking into the case and interviewing the family as part of normal set protocol.

He said while there had been no cases between Karuah and the Queensland border, there had been 'a trickle of cases' in Wollongong of the potentially-fatal disease, which affects the respiratory system.

The Unit will be inquiring into whether the woman has travelled to that area, as well as her movements around her local area.

He said while the Coffs Harbour patient had travelled overseas recently, he understood she had returned to Australia five weeks ago, so this would not be relevant.

The incubation period for legionnaire's disease is two to 10 days.

Mr Bell said health workers expected some cases at the change of seasons, as changes in temperature and humidity affected air-conditioning operating systems, while spring generally saw some cases associated with potting mix as people did more gardening.

He said quite often people who came down with the illness were predisposed to respiratory diseases.

"We don't want to alarm anyone, but we always say to people: 'If you have symptoms, get on to your doctor'," Mr Bell said.

"The only thing that seems to differentiate legionnaire's disease is that it is very fast. Once you get the symptoms, you can go from sick to very sick in just two days."

Legionnaire's disease is a rare form of pneumonia which causes serious illness and can be fatal, especially in older people or those with compromised immune systems. Its symptoms resemble severe influenza.

The Legionella bacteria which cause the disease are relatively common and most people who come into contact with them do not become ill, but about 70 cases of legionnaire's disease are reported in NSW each year.

Cases ring alarm bells for authorities, because they may indicate community health problems.

These are most commonly air-conditioning cooling towers infected with high numbers of the bacteria, or batches of contaminated potting mix.

The most recent outbreak of the disease was at Wollongong in January and February this year. That outbreak saw 12 confirmed cases of the disease, linked to air-conditioning cooling towers in city buildings.

Wollongong was also the location of Australia's deadliest outbreak of legionnaire's disease in 1987, which resulted in the death of 13 people and a further 53 confirmed cases of legionnaire's disease. It remains the world's third worst outbreak of the disease.

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