By Gwen Hanlon
Once again, Union County is dealing with another battle against a preventable disease – Legionnaires’ disease. It was with great sadness that I read about the newest spate of 14 cases and one tragic death. Public officials should have been alerted to a serious issue throughout the county by the 2019 cluster that left five residents dead and 22 other individuals with significant illnesses. In both years, the cases were reported to public health officials beginning in late winter.
With Legionnaires’ disease symptoms — shortness of breath, coughing — similar to COVID-19, I have to wonder if we missed other cases around this time last year when everyone’s attention was hyper-focused on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact is, Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, was present in approximately 50% of all household faucets sampled, according to a 2014 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study. The issues that have come to light in Union County reinforce that the bacteria is all around us. Thankfully, most people do not contract an illness when exposed to Legionella. But, unfortunately, a small percentage, typically individuals with underlying health concerns, do get sick. Tragically, my family and I experienced this firsthand.
In 2016 and 2017, my 46-year-old husband, Kevin, was battling lung cancer. We were terrified but Kevin was ready to fight and he did. His doctors were optimistic and we began treatment at one of the country’s leading cancer centers. Kevin was still working in finance, he was active with our kids, picking them up from school, shuttling them to and from sports, he was still seeing family and being the amazing husband I married. Kevin was still living his life to the fullest.
We took action against his diagnosis and were making progress. To quote his doctor “he was nowhere near end of life.” But, Kevin did not even get a year. Less than a year later it was Legionnaires’ disease, not cancer, that took my husband’s life.
Kevin’s is considered one of the 96% of Legionnaires’ disease cases that are individual and sporadic, not one of the 4% of cases that are considered a part of a large outbreak, which receives media attention and responses from public health officials. That is thousands of deaths that get no attention. When individual cases like Kevin’s occur, the traumatic results are often known only by family and close friends. There’s no media, no political pressure, no serious investigation — just unseen tragedy. Even though this is a traceable and preventable disease, my family still has no meaningful answers from public health officials about Kevin’s source of exposure.
My experience led me to a commitment to finding ways to prevent the tragedy inflicted on my family from happening to others. I joined an advocacy group and work tirelessly to bring awareness to the fact that we need to do more to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to…
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