Hospital in hot water

Legionnaires' disease : Harford Memorial discovered its water system was infecting patients.

July 15, 1999

PEOPLE sometimes can catch diseases in hospitals. It appears that at least five people, three of whom died, may have contracted Legionnaires' disease at Harford Memorial Hospital. At least one family believes hospital officials were not forthcoming about the source of their relative's fatal disease.

Outbreaks of the disease, caused by the Legionella bacterium, are more common than generally recognized. The bacteria grow in water and are present in water systems, air conditioners and whirlpools. The disease, spread by airborne water droplets, can range from a mild respiratory illness to severe pneumonia. Antibiotics, generally erythromycin, are effective in treating most patients.

Hospital officials treated two cases of Legionnaires' disease in June. Both patients had been admitted, released and then were readmitted with pneumonia. One patient died; the other was treated and released.

When a third and then a fourth patient contracted the disease in early July, the hospital suspected it might be the source of the problem and notified county and state health officials.

While waiting for tests to confirm the presence of the Legionella bacterium in its water supply, the hospital cleansed and flushed the system. Hospital staff informed patients and also began tracking down former patients who might have been exposed to the disease.

But they apparently waited six days before informing Evelyn Blakely that her 79-year-old mother Elizabeth M. Cox had contracted Legionnaires' disease. The notification came two days after her mother's death.

Harford Memorial staff took appropriate measures to track down the source of the disease and purge the bacterium from its water supply. It's unfortunate the hospital failed to properly notify one family. Quicker notification would have increased the institution's credibility.

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