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What Is Legionnaires' Disease?

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There have been more than 100 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City since July 10, 2015, and 12 of those infected with the disease have died. The outbreak has been traced to the cooling system of the city’s historic, century-old Opera House Hotel, in the South Bronx. Health officials believe the outbreak has reached its peak, and the hotel has announced that it will test its cooling towers every 30 days—three times as often as required by law.

But what is Legionnaires’ disease, exactly, and how could an air conditioner cause such a massive outbreak of infection?

The disease, and the bacteria that causes it, got its name after a 1976 outbreak among attendees of an American Legion conference in Philadelphia. Out of 2000 conference guests, 221 people were infected and 34 died. At the time, the cause was unknown, and it took the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) around six months to isolate and identify the pathogen.

Legionellosis is any infection of a group of bacteria called Legionella. The most infamous of these infections is the atypical pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease, which is usually caused by a strain called Legionella pneumophila. The good news is that most people who are exposed to L. pneumophila or its less-frequently seen siblings L. longbeachae, L. feeleii, L. micdadadei, and L. anisa don’t usually get sick. And though infection can be deadly if you do contract Legionnaires’ disease, it’s treatable.

While there are between 8000 and 18,000 people hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease each year in the U.S., most healthy people can and do recover through treatment with antibiotics, though there is a risk of lifelong complication from an infection left untreated too long. People most at risk for a serious or deadly outcome are immunocompromised, over age 50, smokers, or suffering from chronic lung illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances are of recovery. One reason treatment might be delayed is that Legionnaires’ disease’s symptoms—high fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches or headaches—are similar to other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza or other types of pneumonia. While the symptoms usually appear two to 10 days after exposure, it can take as long as two weeks to become symptomatic.

Fortunately, Legionnaires’ disease cannot be transmitted from person to person. Instead, the bacteria is spread aerobically, so people are infected by breathing in airborne mist from warm, contaminated water, such as can be found in improperly cleaned hot tubs, ventilation systems, or large plumbing systems. In the 1976 case, the bacteria was eventually found in the cooling towers of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel where the conference took place, and it was rapidly distributed throughout the building via the air conditioning system—a scenario almost identical to that of the current NYC outbreak.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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