An atypical pneumonia called Legionnaires disease (also known as legionellosis) is caused by an aerobic gram-negative bacillus, Legionella pneumophila. This bacterium infects free-living amoebae that inhabit moist environments, and infections typically occur from human-made reservoirs such as air-conditioning cooling towers, humidifiers, misting systems, and fountains. Aerosols from these reservoirs can lead to infections of susceptible individuals, especially those suffering from chronic heart or lung disease or other conditions that weaken the immune system.
When L. pneumophila bacteria enter the alveoli, they are phagocytized by resident macrophages. However, L. pneumophila uses a secretion system to insert proteins in the endosomal membrane of the macrophage; these proteins prevent lysosomal fusion, allowing L. pneumophila to continue to proliferate within the phagosome. The resulting respiratory disease can range from mild to severe pneumonia, depending on the status of the host’s immune defenses. Although this disease primarily affects the lungs, it can also cause fever, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and other neurological effects.
Diagnosis of Legionnaires disease is somewhat complicated. L. pneumophila is a fastidious bacterium and is difficult to culture. In addition, since the bacterial cells are not efficiently stained with the Gram stain, other staining techniques, such as the Warthin-Starry silver-precipitate procedure, must be used to visualize this pathogen. A rapid diagnostic test has been developed that detects the presence of Legionella antigen in a patient’s urine; results take less than 1 hour, and the test has high selectivity and specificity (greater than 90%). Unfortunately, the test only works for one serotype of L. pneumophila (type 1, the serotype responsible for most infections). Consequently, isolation and identification of L. pneumophila from sputum remains the defining test for diagnosis.
Once diagnosed, Legionnaire disease can be effectively treated with fluoroquinolone and macrolide antibiotics. However, the disease is sometimes fatal; about 10% of patients die of complications. There is currently no vaccine available.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology