Two patients at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Medical Center have died after contracting Legionaire’s disease from the water system in the hospital’s hematology/oncology unit, hospital officials confirmed this week.
The two patients died sometime in early to mid-May, according to the hospital. The exact dates of their deaths haven’t been released by the hospital for privacy reasons. They were among eight patients in the same unit who contracted the disease.
“Legionella bacteria are found naturally in the environment, usually in water,” said Dr. Loring Rue, UAB’s Chief Patient Safety and Clinical Effectiveness Officer. “The bacteria grow best in warm water, like the kind found in hot tubs, hot water tanks and large plumbing systems common in office buildings, schools, hotels and hospitals.”
Although the bacteria are naturally occurring, unusually high concentrations of it threaten people with weak or compromised immune systems. The legionella bacteria can cause a form of pneumonia known as legionellosis or Legionaire’s disease. Most people who contract the disease can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
UAB discovered the bacteria in in one unit of the hospital. To address the threat, the hospital imposed water restrictions, put filters on shower and faucet heads, shocked the water system with extreme temperatures, and flushed the system. Patients were also asked to wear masks when flushing the toilets. The bacteria cannot be spread through person-to-person contact.
“We have no knowledge of new infections contracted after our remediation efforts,” Dr. Rue said in a statement.
Legionaire’s disease got its name after a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia sickened 182 attendees. Twenty-nine of those with the disease died. The outbreak was the first time the disease was recognized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 8,000 and 18,000 people are hospitalized with the disease every year.