Two water tanks at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh have tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease, a dangerous type of pneumonia. The bacteria were found after a cancer patient returned for extra care for a respiratory infection. The discovery of Legionnaire bacteria in the patient prompted an unscheduled inspection of the facility, which led to detection of the bacteria in two water tanks at the hospital.
Hospital officials do not believe that the cancer patient contracted Legionnaires’ from the hospital.
Legionnaires’ disease causes a severe upper respiratory infection that can be fatal for hospital patients with already weak immune systems. The disease is spread through mists and vapors, either through inhaling mist from plumbing systems, lakes and streams, fountains, or hot water heaters. Drinking infected water does not cause the disease, unless the water goes down the trachea or windpipe.
The disease was named in 1977 when 221 attendees of the American Legion convention in Philadelphia contracted the disease. 34 people died.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are about 5,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the United States every year, and about 10 of those cases are fatal. The CDC has also reported that the number of Legionnaires’ diagnoses quadrupled between 2000 and 2014. There were 27 outbreaks between these years.
Human error, like failing to clean out tanks and pools, accounts for more than half of all cases. The disease can spread quickly by multiplying in cooling towers of buildings where infected water is dispersed through the air-conditioning system and inhaled by people inside the building.
Almost 10 floors of the hospital have shut off their water supply, and hospital staff is providing bottled water to patients.
Legionnaires’ disease has also been found in drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Since the city changed water sources in April of 2014, there have been 91 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 12 deaths. Though the disease cannot be contracted by drinking contaminated water, people can contract the disease by using contaminated water for bathing or swimming if mist gets inhaled.
Risk factors for the disease include:
- Immune system deficiency or disorders
- Being over 50 years old
- Chronic lung disease
Seeking damages for a Legionnaires’ outbreak can be difficult. Earlier this month a judge in Flint, Michigan ruled against a $100 million lawsuit filed on behalf of three patients, two who suffered through an outbreak of the disease at a hospital and one who died from the outbreak. The judge ruled that the hospital did not have a duty to warn patients about the outbreak of the disease, even though the hospital was aware of the outbreak. State law determines what hospitals are required to disclose to patients.
The attorney for the plaintiffs did not file the case as medical malpractice, but injuries from Legionnaires’ disease can be medical malpractice claims if hospitals are required to disclose this information to patients or if negligent hospital practices led to an outbreak and un-healthy patient environment.