Hospital water test finds bacteria

July 09, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

The building where Johns Hopkins Hospital cares for its transplant patients is on water restrictions this week after routine tests of the water system on July 2 turned up evidence of the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease.

A hospital spokesman said no patients or employees have been infected by the organism, which can cause a lung infection fatal in 5 percent to 30 percent of cases.

"No one is sick. Nor has anyone at the hospital been identified, either patient or staff, as having picked up a Legionella infection," said Hopkins spokesman David March.

The water system serving the Nelson Building, on the west side of the main entrance on Wolfe Street in East Baltimore, was flushed with chlorine dioxide over the weekend, said March. Patients in Nelson have been restricted to bottled water and sponge baths.

He said Hopkins will lift the restrictions after repeated tests of the water supply come back negative.,

March said 14 separate water systems serve buildings on Hopkins' East Baltimore medical campus. By state law, each must be tested quarterly.

Scientists identified Legionnaires' after an outbreak in a Philadelphia hotel in 1976 sickened hundreds of participants at an American Legion convention. As many as 34 died.

The disease is characterized by high fever, chills, a cough, muscle aches and headaches. It is diagnosed by chest X-rays and urine, sputum or blood tests.

Scientists named the bacterium Legionnella pneumophila. They discovered that it breeds in the warm water produced in large water systems, hot tubs, cooling towers and parts of air-conditioning systems. It's particularly active in summer and early autumn.

Transmitted to the lungs in contaminated water vapor or mist, Legionella pneumonia usually responds to antibiotics. But it can be particularly dangerous to the elderly and to people with weak immune systems. These may include cancer, diabetes or kidney patients, as well as transplant recipients who are taking drugs to prevent their immune systems from rejecting their donated organs.

Hopkins has had similar water alerts in past summers, March said, but he could not provide details.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has confirmed 48 cases of Legionnaires' disease this year. DHMH spokesman John Hammond said the state averages about 100 a year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 864 cases had been reported nationwide through late June.

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