Bacteria found in hospital's water

Maryland General shuts off its hot supply after tests reveal Legionella

March 30, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter

Maryland General Hospital has shut off its hot water after routine tests showed low levels of Legionella bacteria in the water system.

The bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires' disease, were detected Tuesday night during quarterly testing of water quality, said Monica Smith, a hospital spokeswoman.

None of the 230-bed hospital's operations has been shut down or curtailed as a result of the problem, she said. Patients are being admitted, and no patients or staff members have shown signs of the disease, she said.

Hospital staff members are using cold water for cleaning, she said.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, said no Legionnaires' cases have been reported to his staff. Along with state health officials, Sharfstein plans to review the hospital's water quality and environmental testing procedures in the coming days.

"I think it's important for us to make sure the hospital is doing what it needs to be doing," he said.

Hospital officials agreed in a conference call yesterday to assist in the review and said they have been following procedures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Sharfstein and Dr. Laura Herrera, chief medical officer for the city Health Department.

Sharfstein advised any staff or patients treated at Maryland General in the past 10 days to see a physician if they experience the pneumonia-like symptoms associated with Legionnaires' disease. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Anyone with symptoms also should advise his or her physician of the possibility of an infection, so that doctors can order a chest X-ray and the urine, blood and sputum culture tests used to detect the disease, he said.

The disease has a 10-day incubation period, so patients and staff should continue to monitor their health for the next 10 days, Sharfstein said.

"This is something we're taking seriously, but with the right precautions taken by patients and doctors, we hope the overall risks will remain very low," Sharfstein said.

Legionnaires' can be treated with antibiotics, but about 10 percent to 15 percent of all cases are fatal, with the elderly and those with weakened immune systems most vulnerable, according to the CDC.

"It's a disease that's very treatable, if it's detected," Sharfstein said.

Legionnaires' disease is spread by the release of small droplets of contaminated water, health experts say. The infected water droplets must be inhaled to cause the illness and cannot be passed from person to person, health officials say.

"It's not a risk to the general public," Sharfstein said.

There also is no danger from drinking the water, but the hospital staff is distributing bottled water to patients and staff, said Smith, the Maryland General spokeswoman. Sanitizing gels and wipes are also being handed out.

Smith said she couldn't say when hot water will be restored.

"We're working around the clock on this," she said.

Small numbers of Legionella bacteria are found naturally in the environment, but they remain harmless until the bacteria begin to colonize an area and grow to populations that can cause infections.

Even with filters and disinfectants, the bacteria can grow in the warm water stored in cooling towers and hot tubs, and in the water tanks of hospitals, nursing centers and other facilities with large water systems, the CDC said.

An estimated 8,000 to 18,000 cases occur each year in the United States, but only a fraction are reported, according to the CDC. Symptoms are so similar to those of flu and pneumonia that cases often go unidentified unless there is a cluster of victims, experts say.

Legionella bacteria were detected at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown last fall after a former inmate was diagnosed with the disease a few days after his release.

Five cases were reported at St. Agnes HealthCare (now called St. Agnes Hospital) in 2005, and in 2000 the water system at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson had to be flushed after Legionella bacteria were detected there.

The disease got its name from a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia that infected more than 200 people and caused 34 deaths.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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