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Disneyland shuts down cooling towers after visitors got Legionnaires’ disease

By Los Angeles Times
Disneyland has shut down two cooling towers after people who visited the Southern California theme park came down with Legionnaires' disease. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Disneyland has shut down two bacteria-contaminated cooling towers after health officials discovered several cases of Legionnairesí disease in people who had visited the Anaheim theme park, authorities said.

The 12 cases of the bacteria-caused illness were discovered about three weeks ago and included nine people who had visited Disneyland Park in September before developing the illness, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. Their ages ranged from 52 to 94.

The remaining three were Orange County residents who did not visit the park but lived or traveled in Anaheim.

Ten were hospitalized and one person "with additional health issues" died, according to health officials. That person did not visit Disneyland.

Legionnairesí disease is a severe lung infection caused by exposure to contaminated water or mist. Authorities said they have not tied any other cases of the disease to Anaheim since September.

"There is no known ongoing risk associated with this outbreak," the health care agency said in a statement.

The towers are in a backstage area near the New Orleans Square Train Station, each more than 100 feet from areas accessible to guests, a Disneyland Resort spokeswoman said. A Disneyland employee is among those who fell ill with the disease.

"On Oct. 27, we learned from the Orange County Health Care Agency of increased Legionnairesí disease cases in Anaheim. We conducted a review and learned that two cooling towers had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria," Dr. Pamela Hymel, chief medical officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said in a statement. "These towers were treated with chemicals that destroy the bacteria and are currently shut down."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified county authorities about three weeks ago of several cases of the disease among people who had traveled to Orange County in September. County epidemiologists discovered that a cluster of people diagnosed with the disease had recently visited, lived or worked in Anaheim and contacted Disney after learning that several of them had gone to the theme park.

According to the health agency, on Nov. 3 Disney reported that routine testing detected elevated levels of Legionella pneumophila in two cooling towers a month earlier, and the towers had been disinfected. Disney took the towers out of service Nov. 1, performed more testing and disinfection, and brought them back into service Nov. 5.

Disney took the towers out of service again Tuesday in advance of an order the health agency issued the following day requiring they remain down until test results verify they are free from Legionella contamination.

The county health agency has also alerted health care providers to look for Legionnairesí disease in anyone who may have become ill after visiting Anaheim or Disneyland before Nov. 7.

It takes 2 to 10 days for symptoms of Legionnairesí disease to appear.

The disease is caused by Legionella bacteria that grows in water and can spread when small droplets get into the air and people breathe them in, according to the CDC. Outbreaks are often traced to hot tubs, decorative fountains, cooling towers and large air-conditioning systems that emit water vapor into the air. Legionnairesí disease is not spread person to person.

The illness can be treated with antibiotics and hospital care, but about 10 percent of people who get it die from the infection. Most at risk are people over 50 with weakened immune systems or chronic lung diseases.

Orange County has recorded more than 55 cases of the disease this year and the number of cases in the county has increased in recent years. A similar upward trend has been seen nationally and elsewhere in Southern California, according to the health care agency, though whatís causing that is unclear.