Legionella bacteria, which cause Legionnaire’s disease. (Photo: Corbis)
A major plant belonging to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has closed for several days after the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was discovered on the premises.
The Zebulon, N.C., plant, which makes inhalable medications, closed on Tuesday (Aug. 10) after routine testing found Legionella (the type of bacteria that causes potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease) in two external cooling towers, the Associated Press reports.
The news is troubling given that Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling water vapors — which make up the medications produced at the factory — that have been contaminated with Legionella. But a GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson says consumers shouldn’t be worried. “No employees are sick and no products have been compromised,“ GlaxoSmithKlein spokesperson Jenni Ligday tells Yahoo Health. “Medicines were not exposed to the bacteria.”
The company says the cooling towers maintain the temperature and humidity needed for manufacturing and working conditions, but none of the air or water released by the cooling towers comes directly into the building or is in contact with any of the 50 products manufactured at the plant.
Legionnaires’ disease has made headlines recently due to a New York City outbreak, which has infected at least 119 people and left 12 dead, according to new data released by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The outbreak began in mid-July in the South Bronx and is also believed to have originated in water from cooling towers.
Legionnaires’ disease was also behind the temporary closure of a Super 8 motel in Washington state this summer, which shuttered after three cases of the disease were linked to the hotel.
Legionnaires’ disease causes an estimated 18,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the disease is contracted from inhaling infected water vapors — such as those that can come from air conditioners, swimming pools, hot tubs, tap water, and water towers — it is not transmitted from person to person.
So how worried should we be about Legionella being found at the GlaxoSmithKline-owned plant?
Fortunately, the closure of the plant is likely just a precautionary measure, notes board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“When any disease outbreak makes news, we see companies going above and beyond what is needed so that the public doesn’t get any false impressions that safety has been compromised,” Adalja tells Yahoo Health.
Based on what we know, Adalja says that there’s “no mechanism” for Legionella to get into the medical products. “It would need to be in the air conditioning that goes into the building where the products are made or in the water that is used to make the medication,” he says.
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The only people who might be at risk are the factory workers, he says — if they somehow are exposed to the contaminated water.
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are similar to those of pneumonia and include fever, chills, muscle aches, and cough, the CDC reports. Some people may also experience headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion, or diarrhea.
Not everyone who comes into contact with Legionella actually develops Legionnaires’ disease, but those who are older, smoke, or have a weakened immune system are at a greater risk.
You shouldn’t panic about Legionnaires’ disease, though. Aside from the New York City outbreak, Adalja says we’re not suddenly experiencing more cases of Legionnaires’ disease than we have in the past — it’s just being reported on more.
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