4 patients stricken with Legionnaires' disease

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Four patients at Pittsburgh Veterans Hospital in Oakland recently contracted Legionnaires' disease after the facility's water system became contaminated with elevated levels of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the pneumonia-like infection.

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System officials said the four patients were treated successfully and efforts continue to decontaminate the water system. Clinical care at VAPHS has continued without interruption ever since the problem was uncovered in the past week.

"After a collaborative review with the [U.S.] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the recent cases and its potable water supply system, VA Pittsburgh has determined that an elevated concentration of the organism was present," a VAPHS news release states.

The bacterium causes a form of pneumonia that can occur when small droplets of water contaminated with it are inhaled. Early symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include a headache, high fever and chills two to 10 days after exposure. By the second or third day of illness, symptoms of pneumonia may arise and include coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath, VA Pittsburgh states.

VA Pittsburgh spokesman David Cowgill said bottled water is being used as drinking water at the medical center and also for hand washing.

"We are recommending use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as appropriate and in certain cases where hand washing is the preferred method of hand hygiene, bottled water will be used," he said. "Alcohol-based hand sanitizers do destroy Legionella."

Legionnaires' disease got its name in 1976 when many people who went to a Philadelphia convention of the American Legion suffered from an outbreak of the disease.

"Each year between 8,000 and 10,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires' disease in the United States," the CDC states. "However, many infections aren't diagnosed or reported, so this number may be higher. More illness is usually found in the summer and early fall, but it can happen any time of year."

For now, the medical facility is equipped with a copper-silver ionization system that is expected to reduce Legionella in the water, but the news release says the system may no longer be working effectively. VA Pittsburgh officials now are turning to chlorination to disinfect the water system.

"It may already be decontaminated after the thermal flush," Mr. Cowgill said. "However, patient and staff safety are the highest priority at VAPHS," with hyper-chlorination of the water system planned for Friday evening. "Once that is completed, we will re-sample our water and it may take up to two weeks before we are certain of eradication."

Most people exposed to the bacterium don't become ill.

"Elderly people, smokers and individuals with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable," VA Pittsburgh stated. "The disease is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from one person to another."

neigh_city - health

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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