As Philadelphia prepares for a four-day convention in the heat of July, some residents are recalling another convention forty years ago and hoping that news will be made by politicians rather than CDC officials. The American Legion convention of July 21-24, 1976, where over 200 people were sickened and 34 died, is now remembered for sparking the first public health crisis covered by modern mass media.
In an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marc Weingarten of Locks Law Firm discusses the discovery of the disease and its implications on public health funding and research. The suffering of those who attended the American Legion convention, which gave its name to Legionnaires’ disease, was not all in vain. The outbreak tested our public health infrastructure and led to some improvements:
We now have the framework for better teamwork between laboratory scientists and epidemiologists. We also have the template for stronger cooperation and coordination among federal, state, and local health departments as well as 24/7 coverage for some agencies. We have seen more rigorous inspection codes as well as stronger sanitation techniques and climate control. And we have learned that the best way to prevent Legionnaires’ disease is to keep water clean through the use of chemical agents or temperature control.
Though the disease has now been named, classified, studied, and made known to doctors and the public, it still poses a significant risk. Legionnaires’ disease presents a deadly risk to vulnerable sections of the population and is often misdiagnosed as pneumonia.
Research into Legionnaires’ has significantly advanced our knowledge of how the disease can be prevented. Now is the time for legislation to put this knowledge into practice. By requiring business and property owners to test for Legionella bacteria, we can stop Legionella infection before it happens. Dr. Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University, has made a strong case for national legislation that would require sources of aerosolized water to be tested for Legionella.
A Safe Breathing Water Act would include closer control of distribution systems and building piping, as well as restrictions on how systems with the potential to generate large volumes of aerosol are managed. It would also require licensing those who are responsible for maintaining water quality in large buildings. And buildings, with licensed operators, could be allowed to engage in local treatment without being considered public water systems.