Legionnaires’ Disease, caused by an airborne bacteria and first discovered in 1976, was found in the water system at Strong Memorial Hospital two weeks ago. Since then, steps have been taken to isolate and remove the bacteria and restore normal operation in the hospital.

The bacteria was found in a concentration of five parts per cubic milliliter, which is significantly less than that of previous Legionnaires’ cases at Strong in the 1980s.

“The concentration of bacteria cannot be translated into its risk,” UR Medical Center Clinical Director for Infectious Disease Paul Graman said. “The fact that the bacteria grew at all is of concern to us.”

Legionnaires’ was named for its initial outbreak among members of the American Legion staying in Philadelphia in 1976. As many as 221 patients were treated for the disease during that outbreak, 34 of whom died.

At the time, the disease was thought to be a strain of pneumonia. Since then, the bacteria has been named Legionella and identified as unique.

The Legionella bacteria was discovered in URMC’s water system after the diagnosis of a cancer patient with Legionnaires’ Disease on January 27.

To combat the spread of the disease, the water systems at URMC were flushed with a chlorine solution and many hospital patients are drinking and showering with bottled water. These procedures will continue until there are no signs of contamination remaining in the water system.

“We are chlorinating the water at a significantly higher level than when it comes into the building,” Graman said. “As of Wednesday, the water was brought to a lower chlorine level, but still above the level coming into the building.”

After the initial diagnosis of the patient with Legionnaires’ Disease, the area surrounding her was tested to determine where exactly the bacteria could have come from. Although the Legionella bacteria can only infect humans through inhalation, it can grow and remain dormant in water for some time.

“The Legionella bacteria is present in the public water supply,” Graman said. “It gets into buildings such as the hospital and then can grow in the hot water system.”

The bacteria remains dormant at colder temperatures but can grow and flourish in the hot water systems of buildings, where the warm temperatures are more conducive to its expansion.

“Even though it may be present in a public water basin, Legionella will not grow to the same numbers there as in a hot water system,” Graman said.

Legionnaires’ Disease generally occurs in single cases as opposed to epidemics such as the 1976 Philadelphia incident. This is due in part to modern sterilization and bacteria removal procedures.

Still, Legionnaires’ Disease infects between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States each year. There were 14 reported cases in Monroe County last year.

URMC intends to continue with antibacterial precautions until the results of its latest water test arrive. Although non-patients are currently able to drink from fountains and use other water supplies, patients in the main hospital remain limited to bottled water. Some patients with particularly high vulnerability to infection are being given treated-water sponge baths rather than showers due to the remote possibility of infection through water vapor inhalation.

Still, faculty and staff intend to remain cautious until the bacteria’s removal has been completely confirmed.Majarian can be reached at mmajarian@campustimes.org.

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