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In Illinois, Legionnaires' Disease More Prevalent Than Coronavirus

Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease
Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease

With a fourth case of COVID-19 announced in Illinois Monday, coronavirus continues to dominate headlines. But experts say there’s another, more common disease that ought to be getting more attention.

At issue is the waterborne illness known as Legionnaires’ Disease. It made headlines in Illinois two years ago after public radio station WBEZ-FM reported more than a dozen deaths at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy.

“Twenty-five thousand people are going to be impacted by Legionella,” said Bob Bowcock, a nationally recognized water engineer who is also part of a group working to promote water safety across the country.

“Many of them are going to die, and yet, nobody even knows what it is,” he added.

Bowcock said Legionnaires’ Disease often flies under the radar because most cases are individual and sporadic, meaning there’s little chance of a massive outbreak.

Credit Bob Bowcock / Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease
Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease

Nevertheless, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 569 cases of Legionnaires’ Disease last year with 43 fatalities.

That’s compared to Illinois’ four coronavirus infections so far, with zero fatalities.

Exposure to the disease comes from breathing water vapor like the steam of a hot shower.

Bowcock also praised Illinois for taking the initiative to control sporadic cases of Legionnaires’ Disease.

He said the federal government should come up with a nationwide standard modeled after regulations in Illinois.

“These changes to our water quality are very, very, very important, and to understand them as Illinois has is an example for the rest of the United States,” Bowcock said.

Mike Smith is a graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2020 legislative session.
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