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8,500 hotel guests possibly exposed to Legionnaires’ disease

By Mitch Smith, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Three cases of Legionnaires’ disease — a severe form of pneumonia — have been linked to a downtown Chicago hotel where 8,500 guests might have been exposed to the illness between July 16 and Aug. 15.

The JW Marriott Chicago Hotel, 151 W. Adams St., is mailing letters to customers who might have been exposed. About 65 percent of the letters had been mailed as of Tuesday, a hotel spokesman said.

The Legionella bacteria is found in water and can cause a form of pneumonia characterized by headache, high fever, chills, cough, chest pain and shortness of breath, officials said.

Marriott has drained its pool, hot tub and fountain, leading the Chicago Department of Public Health to say it believes there is “no ongoing health risk at the hotel.” The department is continuing to investigate.

Of the three people infected, two have been released from the hospital, said Dr. Kathleen Ritger of the public health department. She said it’s not certain whether the other patient’s condition is life-threatening.

Most people exposed to Legionella do not become ill, but elderly people, smokers and people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable. Legionnaires’ disease can cause death in 5 percent to 30 percent of patients who become ill, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anyone with symptoms should contact their doctor. Those who might have been exposed can call a public health hotline at 312-746-4835 on weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. CDT.

In 2010, eight people contracted Legionnaires’ disease from a fountain at a Wisconsin hospital. All survived, but an expert who studied that case said it showed the risks Legionella can pose in untreated fountains and other public water displays.

“You can have a high fatality rate,” said Thomas Haupt, a respiratory epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Division of Public Health. “We had several of our patients on ventilators for a long period of time.”

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