October is the start of Legionnaires’ season

Man with mask potting plants in soil.

It’s gardening season so it’s time to reach for the spade, the wheelbarrow, the gloves, and the face mask!

Canterbury has the country’s highest incidence rates of potentially-fatal Legionnaire’s disease, while New Zealand has the highest reported incidence of the disease in the world.

Legionnaire’s disease causes a form of pneumonia. Contact with compost and potting mix is a main contributor as that’s where the Legionella longbeachae bacteria can lurk.

Gardeners are encouraged to wear a mask to prevent inhaling the dust. Even using unwashed hands to remove a mask can be enough to become infected.

“It’s a timely reminder to our community that hand washing immediately after gardening is very important in protecting against Legionnaire’s disease,” says Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Ramon Pink. “Reducing the risk of becoming infected is vital as more of us get out into our gardens with the longer days and warmer weather”.

A recent CDHB-funded study of the disease by University of Otago researchers found that gardeners washing their hands immediately after use protected against the disease, by minimising exposure of the bacteria to the face. The report also recommends long term smokers and those with cardiac or respiratory conditions take particular care of their hygiene during and after gardening.

271 cases have been notified nationwide in the last 12 months – 49 of those in Canterbury. 30 percent of patients hospitalised with the disease require time in the intensive care unit.

Five simple steps to avoid Legionnaire’s disease from potting mix or compost

It is important that gardeners follow these five simple steps to avoid catching Legionnaires’ disease from potting mix or compost:

  1. Open potting mix bags carefully using scissors, rather than ripping them.
  2. Wear a disposable face mask and gloves and open the bag away from your face.
  3. Do your potting in a well-ventilated area outside.
  4. Dampen down the potting mix or compost with a sprinkle of water to stop the bacteria from becoming airborne.
  5. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling potting mix and doing any gardening.

Symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease to look out for

Symptoms of the disease may include:

  • dry coughing
  • high fever
  • chills
  • diarrhoea
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pains
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting, and
  • abdominal pain.

Anyone who gets these symptoms should see their general practice team immediately, and let them know they have been handling potting mix or compost recently.

Source: Canterbury DHB media release (3rd October 2017).

Published on Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017, under News
Page last updated: 16/10/2017

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