17 June 2012

Legionnaires' outbreak claims its second life

As many of you may already be aware, there has been a sudden outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease in Edinburgh that has sadly claimed lives the lives of two men. The source of the outbreak is still unknown and although scientists doubt that they will ever be able to identify it definitively due to the large size of the industrial estate in the western district of the city, it is believed that the bacteria is spreading in the steam released from the cooling towers of certain factories. The outbreak already has 41 confirmed cases* and the number of suspected cases stands at 48*.

Although Legionnaires' Disease is caused by a range of bacteria from the genus Legionella, approximately 90% of cases are due to infection with Legionella pneumophila. L. pneumophila can cause a potentially fatal form of pneumonia in 'Legion Fever' or in some forms, can produce a milder illness that resembles the flu.

Named after an outbreak of pneumonia in a conference of the American Legion in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in 1977, Legionnaires' Disease is caused by small bacteria  from the genus Legionella and can be fatal in severe cases. The bacteria are found in water and are spread to people when they drink or wash in water from contaminated sources - a fact that can play havoc in hotels, apartment blocks and hotels as many individuals' in such buildings use water from the same source, meaning that infection can spread very rapidly. Legionnaires' Disease is rare in the UK however, due to the enforcement of strict regulations for the control and maintenance of water control systems (e.g. heating water to at least 60C) and as such, there was only 245 reported cases of the disease in England and Wales in 2009.

Poor maintenance of the cooling systems in the factory(s) involved is believed to have allowed the bacteria to build up and divide in the steam produced and then be disseminated over large areas of land in the airborne water vapour ejected from their cooling towers; infecting people who unknowingly come into contact with it and breathe in the droplets. Symptoms of the disease includes mild headaches, muscle pains, a persistent cough and occasionally vomiting and diarrhoea - anyone in south-west Edinburgh suffering from such symptoms should contact NHS Direct or their local GP if they are concerned (although the outbreak is believed to have already reached its peak). The disease is rarely fatal however and, as in the tragic cases of the two deaths earlier this week, is usually only so when it infects individuals who already have underlying health problems.

* as of publishing this post

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