Health authorities suspect an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that sickened at least 15 people in Southern California is tied to two cooling towers at Disneyland in Anaheim, but how the illness infected some of the individuals remains a mystery.
Orange County health agency spokeswoman Jessica Good told the Los Angeles Times that 11 of the 15 people with confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease visited Disneyland in September. Two of those sickened in the outbreak have died. Four of those infected did not visit Disneyland.
Legionnaires’ disease is caused by the naturally occurring Legionella bacteria, which exists in low concentrations in lakes, streams, and other bodies of water. But the bacteria can thrive in high concentrations in man-made water systems, and that is how it becomes a threat to human health.
Anyone who inhales mist from a contaminated source such as a cooling tower can develop a severe form of pneumonia. To some with other health problems, the disease can turn deadly.
When health officials identified Disneyland as a common denominator in most of the cases, park officials ran tests and later confirmed that two water towers in the park had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria. The towers were shut down and disinfected and Disneyland says that they no longer pose a health threat.
How the contaminated towers could have spread Legionnaires’ disease to guests remains a mystery, as the cooling towers are located in a backstage area away from guests. Then there are the four people who visited Anaheim but didn’t go to Disneyland.
According to the LA Times, one expert said that contaminated mist from the towers could have traveled away from the towers and even outside the park.
Ms. Good told the LA Times that health officials investigating the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak are visiting hotels, motels, and businesses along the Harbor Boulevard corridor that straddles Disneyland to the east and connects it with downtown Anaheim.
Health officials involved in the investigation are alerting doctors and health departments in other areas to alert them to other cases of Legionnaires’ disease in patients who traveled to Anaheim from August through October.
The number of Legionnaires’ disease cases has risen dramatically in the past several years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases is four times what it was in 2000. The disease sickens about 6,000 people a year. About 10 percent of those infected die.