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Plumbing In Hospitals And Nursing Homes Can Spread Legionnaires' Disease

Nursing homes and hospitals need to work harder to keep water systems from being contaminated with bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease, the CDC says.
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Nursing homes and hospitals need to work harder to keep water systems from being contaminated with bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease, the CDC says.

Nursing homes and hospitals need to do more to protect their patients from catching Legionnaires' disease from contaminated water systems in their buildings, federal health officials warned Tuesday.

An analysis of more than 2,800 cases of Legionnaires' that occurred in 2015 found that 553 definitely or possibly occurred in a health care facility such as a nursing home or a hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Sixty-six patients died from the disease.

"It's widespread, it's deadly and it's preventable," says Anne Schuchat, the CDC's acting director.

Legionnaires' disease is a potentially life-threatening form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria, which can grow in water systems such as water storage tanks or pipes. The elderly and people who have weakened immune systems because they are sick are especially at risk.

The CDC says hospitals and nursing homes need to work harder to keep the bacteria from getting into places where patients might be exposed, such as showers, sinks and bathtubs, as well as medical equipment that uses water.

"We know if those facilities have an effective water-management system they can prevent these infections," Schuchat says. "Nobody wants their loved one to go into a hospital or a long-term care facility and end up with Legionnaires' disease."

According to the report, 6,079 Legionnaires' cases occurred nationwide in 2015. The analysis focused on 2,809 cases that occurred in 20 states and New York City. Among those, 468 were possibly associated with health care facilities and 85 definitely were.

Among the 85 cases that were definitely associated with health care facilities, 68, or 80 percent, were associated with long-term care facilities and 15, or 18 percent, were associated with hospitals.

Schuchat says she was surprised by the number of cases associated with health care facilities. They need to be especially attentive to the problem, given the vulnerabilities of their patients, she says.

"This analysis has uncovered a problem that is happening every day in health care facilities around the country and something we can do a lot about," she says. "This report suggests that in many health care facilities, there's really just an outbreak waiting to happen."

For their part, hospitals and nursing homes say they are working to protect patients from Legionnaires'.

"America's hospitals and health systems are committed to providing safe and healthy environments for the patients they serve," Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, wrote in an email. "This includes ensuring the development and use of an effective water management program to help prevent the outbreak of diseases, including Legionnaires' disease."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.