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02/26/2013

A deadly bacteria makes a comeback -- 31 years later

Legionella_B2
Source:  www.cdc.gov

How long can a strain of Legionella bacteria stick around? According to an investigation by the Tribune-Review, potentially more than 30 years.

The Pittsburgh newspaper has obtained documents showing that a strain of bacteria (linked with a recent Legionnaires' disease outbreak and at least five deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital) is nearly identical to a strain that caused an outbreak at the same location -- back in 1982.

In October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a bug from the recent outbreak had five of the seven genes from the 1982 outbreak, the Tribune-Review reports.

This suggests the Legionella strain has survived in the hospital's water system for several years -- enduring "decades of hot-water flushes, cycles of chemical disinfectant and the installation of a copper-silver ionization system designed to kill it," according to a CDC report quoted in the article.

Pipe slime and calcium build-ups can harbour the bacteria and allow it to survive, microbiologist Janet Stout explained to the newspaper.

The recent outbreak began in January 2011 and lasted until October 2012, sickening at least 21 patients at two Veterans Affairs hospital locations. It's still unclear if the second facility was hit by the same Legionella strain. Five people died 30 days after testing positive for the bacterial infection, according to the report; at least one family is now planning to sue.

The 1982 outbreak sickened some 100 people with Legionnaires' disease, 30 per cent of them fatally. According to the article, the 1982 outbreak was a "gamechanger" for public health officials studying the bacteria, illuminating the fact that Legionella can grow in the hot water systems of hospitals.

Dr. Victor Yu, who investigated the 1982 outbreak and was fired by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in 2006, told the Tribune-Review that more should have been done to prevent the bacteria from resurging.

"We know that it will come back if we don't monitor it," he told the newspaper. "They should've monitored, but they didn't, and that's the whole scandal."

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

 

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