What is the pathophysiology of Legionnaires disease?

Updated: Mar 11, 2021
  • Author: Chinelo N Animalu, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Legionella species are obligate or facultative intracellular parasites. Water is the major environmental reservoir for Legionella; the bacteria can infect and replicate within protozoa such as Acanthamoeba and Hartmannella, which are free-living amoebae found in natural and manufactured water systems. (Legionellae can resist low levels of chlorine used in water distribution systems.)

Within the amebic cells, Legionella species can avoid the endosomal-lysosomal pathway and can replicate within the phagosome. Surviving and growing in amebic cells allows Legionella to persist in nature. 

This electron micrograph depicts an amoeba, Hartma This electron micrograph depicts an amoeba, Hartmannella vermiformis (orange), as it entraps a Legionella pneumophila bacterium (green) with an extended pseudopod. After it is ingested, the bacterium can survive as a symbiont within what then becomes its protozoan host. The amoeba then becomes a so-called "Trojan horse," since, by harboring the pathogenic bacterium, the amoeba can afford it protection. In fact, in times of adverse environmental conditions, the amoeba can metamorphose into a cystic stage, enabling it, and its symbiotic resident, to withstand the environmental stress. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Barry S Fields.

Legionella species infect human macrophages and monocytes; intracellular replication of the bacterium is observed within these cells in the alveoli. The intracellular infections of protozoa and macrophages have many similarities.

Activated T cells produce lymphokines that stimulate increased antimicrobial activity of macrophages. This cell-mediated activation is key to halting the intracellular growth of legionellae. The significant role of cellular immunity explains why legionellae are observed more frequently in immunocompromised patients. Humoral immunity is thought to play a secondary role in the host response to legionellae infection.

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