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Northwestern Sheboygan Yields Illness Mystery

August 26, 1986

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) _ The quiet streets of a working class neighborhood have produced a medical mystery in this Lake Michigan city as authorities investigate 30 people with symptoms of Legionnaire’s Disease.

One person has died since mid-August of Legionnaire’s Disease and three others of ″atypical pneumonia,″ authorities said.

The illness has authorities baffled because the cluster of cases have no apparent link, other than most of them came from a 15-block area on the city’s northwest side, said Sheboygan Health Director Sol Belinky. ″That’s what makes it so difficult, all the cases in the past were in a closed environment.″

The mystery began with the first admissions Aug. 10. Most of the cases were admitted between then and Aug. 15, authorities said.

But it wasn’t until Thursday, when Roger Klettke, a pathologist at St. Nicholas Hospital, noticed the cluster of addresses and ages and the number of pneumonia admissions that authorities became suspcious, Belinky said.

″He’s the one who alerted us to the fact that, ’Hey, I think we have something here and let’s get going,‴ he said Monday.

Health officials began their investigation Friday. Belinky said the probe could take up to four weeks. Some of the victims remain hospitalized.

The symptoms are similar to Legionnaire’s Disease, but laboratory tests are needed, said Dr. Jeffrey Davis, a state epidemiologist.

The ill range in age from 31 to 86, but 19 are over age 55, the Division of Health said. All are being given antibiotics designed to fight Legionnaire’s Disease, Belinky said.

Wisconsin sees about 30 isolated cases of Legionnaire’s Disease each year, Davis said. The last outbreak was in 1979 in Eau Claire, where nine people became ill and four died.

State and local health officials planned to map a strategy today to hunt for the cause of the outbreak, Belinky said.

″The next step ... is to do an environmental study ... to look at industries, water conditions, wind conditions whatever may turn out to be a source of the disease,″ said Dr. David Addiss, a state epidemiologist.

Belinky identified the Legionnaire’s victim as Irene M. Potter, 67, mother of state Rep. Calvin Potter, who grew up in the neighborhood.

In the neighborhood Monday night, the rows of neat bungalows and Cape Cod homes were lit in television blue at the end of another work day.

Caroline Johnston, 64, owner of Johnston’s Bakery, lived across the street from Mrs. Potter.

″I first read about it tonight,″ she said. ″It sure shocked me when I read it. I don’t know why it’s this area.″

Belinky and state Division of Health officials said a man and two other women died of pneumonia, but their names and ages weren’t released.

Legionnaire’s Disease, named because it sickened more than 200 and killed 34 in 1976 when it broke out at a Philadelphia hotel during an American Legion convention, is characterized by rapidly rising fever, chills, dry cough, vomiting, stomach pain and X-ray evidence of pneumonia.

Diarrhea, muscle aches, loss of appetite and headaches also may be associated with the illness.