Four cases of disease examined

Legionnaires' found at Harford hospital, results in 2 deaths

State, county investigating

Md. officials suspect source of bacterium is inside facility

July 08, 1999|By Laura Cadiz and Dan Thanh Dang | Laura Cadiz and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

State and Harford County health officials are investigating four cases of Legionnaires' disease at Harford Memorial Hospital, including two deaths -- the most recent of them Tuesday.

As a precaution, the hospital over the weekend flushed its water system, a potential source of contamination. State health officials are trying to determine if the hospital is the source of the Legionella bacterium.

"We suspect that it might be in the hospital, but we will not be absolutely sure until we've tested water samples we've taken from their water system," said Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Leonard said the test results could come this afternoon. To ease concerns of patients and families, the hospital has set up an 800 hot line.

Hospital officials said the first case was discovered June 8 in the intensive care unit. The patient had pneumonia-like symptoms, said Debbie Egerland, spokeswoman for Upper Chesapeake Health System Inc.

"We tested and determined that the patient had Legionnaires' disease, and we notified Harford County health officials," Egerland said.

A second case with similar symptoms was discovered June 25, hospital officials said. One of those patients died the next day. Hospital officials refused to disclose the patients' identities, citing confidentiality rules.

Leonard said state health officials were notified of the infections and the death June 29 and began an investigation. Water samples were taken from the hospital for testing before the July Fourth weekend.

Two more cases of Legionnaires' disease were diagnosed at the hospital Friday. State officials said a second patient died of the disease Tuesday. All the cases were in the intensive-care unit, hospital officials said.

Spread by water droplets

Legionellosis is a bacterial infection that can cause a very mild respiratory illness or severe pneumonia that can lead to death. Its symptoms include a dry cough, high fever, chills, muscle aches, diarrhea, fatigue, headache and abdominal pain.

The disease is spread by water droplets in the air and can develop in air conditioners, whirlpools, spas and showers. It does not appear to be spread by personal contact.

This year, Leonard said, the state has had 13 reported cases of Legionnaires' disease, four of them fatal. In October, a woman died after an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at Poly Seal Corp. in Dundalk. Last year, the state had 35 reported cases, two of which resulted in deaths.

Urging calm

"We're trying to work to alleviate the fears in the community and with our patients," said Egerland.

Hospital officials heated the water supply to 150 degrees to kill any Legionella bacteria after the third and fourth cases were discovered. They also flushed and chlorinated all water outlets.

State officials urged people not to panic. "We feel that they have done everything they can to minimize the risk; they have treated the water system," Leonard said of hospital officials.

Of the two surviving patients, one was treated and released recently; the other is recovering at the hospital.

Anyone with questions may call the hospital's hot line at 1-800-515-0044 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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