Queensland man hospitalised with Legionellosis after a weekend of gardening as circumstances spike

Queensland man hospitalised with Legionellosis after a weekend of gardening as circumstances spike

When Paul Copeland developed a fever, pain and difficulty breathing in July this year, he thought he had COVID-19.

Core items:

  • The bacterium is usually associated with potting soil and soil
  • Mr Copeland believes he contracted the infection while watering his garden beds
  • Cases are increasing in New South Wales and Queensland compared to the past five years

But the Brisbane man soon discovered it was a potentially deadly bacterium from his garden that had caused his debilitating symptoms.

“Getting to the point where you can’t walk and you can’t talk is pretty bad,” Mr Copeland said.

“I’ve never been this sick before. My skin hurt, my hair hurt.”

Mr Copeland went to hospital, where COVID-19 was ruled out, but a chest X-ray showed pneumonia.

He was treated and sent home but returned the next day as his condition worsened.

“I was in hospital for four more days,” Mr Copeland said.

“I wasn’t coughing a lot, but I just couldn’t breathe and my oxygen levels were pretty low.”

Paul Copeland contracted legionellosis while moving earth in Brisbane. (ABC News: Melinda Howells)

A nagging thought of a weekend gardening job prompted Mr Copeland to ask doctors if handling soil might have caused his illness.

Mr. Copeland had used buckets to carry earth down a narrow path down the side of his house and to fill in beds in his backyard.

He believes this is how he inhaled Legionella longbeachae bacteria, which are typically associated with potting and garden soil.

“When I mentioned the dirt and landscaping, they went back and did another test and that came back positive,” he said.

Man pours potting soil into potted plant Legionellosis symptoms can include fever, pain, and difficulty breathing.ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

A tip in cases

Cases of Legionella longbeachae infection were much higher in Queensland and New South Wales this year than in the previous five years.

Queensland has recorded 88 cases so far this year – more than triple the 2017-21 average for this time of year. Two of this year’s cases have died.

NSW has reported 86 cases in 2022 compared to an average of 56 in the first 10 months of 2017-21.

Experts believe the true numbers are likely much higher as some infections go undiagnosed.

Queensland Chief Health Officer (CHO) John Gerrard, who worked as an infectious disease specialist on the Gold Coast before becoming a CHO, said more than usual rainfall this year could be to blame.

But another theory suggests that people are gardening more during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I haven’t seen any data on this, but I’ve been told that people are using potting soil mixes more often,” said Dr. gerrard

Although all ages and genders are at risk, Candice Holland, infectious diseases doctor at Ipswich Hospital, said men over the age of 50 were particularly susceptible to infection with Legionella longbeachae.

“We see it in both men and women, but more so in men,” said Dr. Holland.

“I don’t think we fully understand what are the factors that make men with this condition more uncomfortable.”

Man in the garden with potted plants Masks when gardening are a good step to avoid legionellosis.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

dr Holland said smokers accounted for 18 percent of Legionella longbeachae cases in Queensland this year.

People with pre-existing conditions are also very susceptible to contracting legionellosis, but otherwise healthy young people are not immune.

“It can be a very serious infection. It can make people very ill and require hospitalization and an extended stay in the intensive care unit,” said Dr. Holland.

“It is very serious and people should take the appropriate precautions when handling potting soil.

“There are all kinds of bugs that live in the soil, so regardless of your age or medical condition, make sure you protect yourself when gardening.

“I think being outside and being active and gardening is a great thing, but just do it in a way that doesn’t make you uncomfortable from these earth and dirt-based bugs.”

Doctors advise caution

Ideally, people should wear gloves and a mask when handling garden soil or potting soil and wash their hands after gardening.

dr Gerrard also advised gardeners to open bags of potting soil away from their face and not to shake the bag before emptying.

“The other thing is to moisten the potting soil… so it doesn’t create dust,” he said.

Paul Copeland recovered from his infection with Legionella longbeachae after taking antibiotics and resting for two weeks.

But returning to his former level of physical activity has taken much longer.

“I just started going back to the gym last week,” he said.

“I’ve always had mild asthma and I’ve found my asthma to be a lot more severe since having Legionnaires, so I’m constantly looking at my Ventolin and preventatives.

“Hopefully there are no long-term consequences.”

As for the next landscaping job at home, he’s off the hook.

“I have a release card for the rest of my life – no need to ever do manual labor again,” he said, laughing.