An employee of the VA Boston Health Care System fell ill with Legionnaires’ disease in late September, but there is no sign that the illness has spread, officials said.
The employee worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ West Roxbury hospital and was treated at another hospital in Boston, which has not been identified. The VA declined to release any information about the employee.
The Boston Public Health Commission acknowledged Thursday that it had “recently investigated one case of Legionnaires’ ” but had not identified the source of the infection, “which is not uncommon.”
“There is no risk of an outbreak at this time,” the commission said in a statement.
Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia that occurs when people inhale tiny water droplets containing bacteria known as legionella. The bacteria occur naturally in freshwater springs and ponds, and usually cause problems only when they proliferate in building water systems, such as cooling towers and fountains that spray contaminated mist or vapor. The bacteria do not spread person to person.
A spokeswoman for the VA said that as soon as the West Roxbury hospital learned of the employee’s illness, the hospital traced the employee’s movements within the building. Tests found legionella on a little-used sink outside of patient areas. The area was closed off and cleaned. The hospital is awaiting the results of follow-up tests to ensure the bacteria are gone, and the affected area remains off limits.
“To date, no other areas of the facility have been affected and there has been no known impact to patients or other employees,” the VA hospital’s statement said.
The hospital said it has “a robust, regular water-testing program” and that water for the West Roxbury campus is pretreated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority with monochloramine, a disinfectant that contains chlorine. The hospital also monitors water temperatures to ensure the hot water in clinical areas is hot enough to prevent legionella from growing, the hospital’s statement said.
Legionnaires’ disease can cause coughing, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, and headaches. Symptoms start two to 14 days after exposure. Legionnaires’ is more common among the elderly and those with impaired immune systems or underlying diseases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who become sick usually need hospitalization but get better with antibiotics. Still, one in 10 die.
The Boston Public Health Commission has fact sheets on Legionnaires’ disease in English, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese at bphc.org.