NSW health officials issue warning

There has been a spike in cases of legionnaires’ disease in Sydney and the Illawarra region, prompting an urgent warning from health authorities.

NSW Health is urging building owners to ensure cooling towers are properly cleaned and maintained.

There were 17 cases of legionnaires disease’ in January where the source of the disease – which often causes severe respiratory symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches – was unknown.

In the past, outbreaks have been linked to contaminated airconditioning plants in large buildings, given the disease isn’t transmitted from person to person.

NSW Health director of health protection Richard Broome said there was often an increase in cases towards the end of summer when the weather cooled down and the use of airconditioning systems started to change.

However, the January spike was larger than normal.

“Public Health Unit staff investigate each case of legionnaires’ disease and no specific source has been identified,” Dr Broome said.

“However, it’s timely to remind businesses and building owners of their obligations under the Public Health Regulation 2012 to ensure their cooling towers are properly maintained.

“If there is any possibility that a system is not operating correctly, it should be cleaned and an online disinfection procedure undertaken as soon as possible.”

New regulations introduced in 2018 forced building owners to carry out monthly tests on cooling towers before flagging high levels of bacteria to council.

Legionella pneumophila bacteria is what causes legionnaires’ disease.

Symptoms of the disease can develop up to 10 days after exposure to contaminated water particles in the air.

Health authorities said symptoms were similar to those caused by COVID-19.

“Legionnaires’ disease is diagnosed by chest X-ray and a urine test and usually requires antibiotic treatment in hospital. If you have tested negative for COVID-19 but have ongoing or worsening symptoms, you should see your doctor or visit your local emergency department,” NSW Health said.

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