Six Chaves County residents have developed confirmed cases of Legionnaire’s disease since early October, and two have died, state health officials said Thursday.
The bacterial illness sickens a few New Mexicans each year, but an outbreak of six patients within two months is unusual, said Chad Smelser, medical epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health.
New Mexico typically has fewer than 10 cases a year, he said, “and we certainly don’t have this many cases in a short period of time.”
Health officials are investigating possible sources of the Legionella bacterium, which has killed two women, ages 65 and 69. The other four patients are recovering, but some have been hospitalized, he said.
“They are residents of Chaves County, and they all had medical conditions that put them at higher risk of developing disease,” Smelser said of the confirmed cases. “We don’t have it pinpointed to anything other than Chaves County at this time.”
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include cough, fever, difficulty breathing, muscle aches and headaches. Sometimes patients will have diarrhea, nausea and confusion. The disease can cause severe pneumonia and is fatal in 10 percent of cases.
Health officials urge anyone with those symptoms to seek medical attention, particularly those at risk of severe illness.
At higher risk are older people and those with chronic illnesses, particularly lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema.
Also at risk are those with weakened immune systems from diseases such as cancer, diabetes or kidney failure.
Legionella bacterium typically does not spread from person to person, but is usually breathed in, often through a mist. The bacterium becomes a health risk when it contaminates man-made water systems.
The bacterium was first identified in 1976 when people who had attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia became ill and many of them died. The source was linked to the hotel’s air conditioning system.