Two suspected Legionnaires' disease deaths in the southern region in recent months and a spate of other cases of the ailment have prompted a new public health campaign by the Southern District Health Board.

Last year, 20 cases of legionellosis were notified in the Southern DHB district, 14 of which were in the last three months of the year.

''To date, this year there have been three cases, all in Dunedin City,'' SDHB medical officer of health Anura Jayasinghe said.

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One Dunedin man's death has been confirmed as being primarily due to legionellosis; the cause of a Central Otago man's death is officially unknown, but is suspected to have been the same.

''Both men had an exposure to potting mix/compost,'' Dr Jayasinghe said.

Both the deceased were elderly men who had other medical conditions.

Legionella infection can cause a cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle pains, headaches, and nausea, vomiting. File photo / supplied
Legionella infection can cause a cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle pains, headaches, and nausea, vomiting. File photo / supplied

Men over 60 and smokers were at higher risk of contracting the disease than other demographics, Dr Jayasinghe said.

''People should watch out for signs of legionellosis, as early treatment is usually effective.

''Early symptoms can appear 2-10 days after exposure and are similar to the flu; the infection can cause a cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle pains, headaches, and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea may also occur.''

In November the SDHB publicised the death of the Dunedin man from legionnaire's to help raise awareness of the disease, to which gardeners are particularly prone.

The man's widow told the Otago Daily Times her husband was a fit and healthy non-smoker, who loved working in their garden.

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As many patients do, the man dismissed his coughing and sneezing as a cold or flu.

''I went along with the idea that it was a cold or flu for a couple of days, but then I said you should go to the doctor,'' the woman said.

''At that stage it wasn't aggressive and they did put it down to being a flu ... but by the Friday I was concerned and I rang the doctor again.

''He wasn't 100 per cent, but he did walk off down our path ... I said you'll get some antibiotics and you'll be fine.''

Hours later he was dead.

Dr Jayasinghe said the spate of cases had prompted the SDHB to develop a poster identifying the risks of legionnaire's and providing advice for people on how to protect themselves when handling potting mix or soils.

''This is in the process of being printed and distributed across the district to retail outlets that sell potting mix,'' he said.

''People need to handle potting mix and compost with care.''

Legionnaire's disease

• Type of pneumonia caused by bacteria commonly found living in potting mix, soils and compost
• Symptoms are very similar to flu; cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle pains, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.
• Possibly fatal, can be treated if detected quickly enough
• If using potting mix, soils or compost: wear a good quality mask and gloves, open bags in a well ventilated space, wash hands when finished.