Outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease in Cumbria may affect over 100

 

The worst British outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease for a decade has hit Cumbria, killing one man and, according to health officials, possibly affecting more than 100 people .

The man (89) died yesterday and 19 other people from Barrow-in-Furness were suffering from the illness. A further 11 have developed similar symptoms.

A spokesman for Furness general hospital in Barrow said it was expecting up to 130 people to be admitted over the coming fortnight, of whom 15 to 20 could die.

The only factor linking the patients is that they have all recently visited Barrow town centre. A major incident team based at the hospital is investigating the source of the outbreak, which may have been a public place in the town centre but is definitely not a hospital.

The hospital has been put on full alert to deal with any new cases in the next few days. All elective surgery has been cancelled for Monday and Tuesday. Other hospitals in the area are preparing to treat at least 10 people a day over the next 10 days.

Mr Ian Cumming, chief executive of the Morecambe Bay hospitals trust, said: "We have been seeing people coming through at a rate of six to 10 a day, so projecting that over the next 10 days, we are expecting another 100 cases.

"People should try not to be concerned. I know that is easier said than done. We believe we can cope with people coming through the doors at Furness general hospital."

Initially some of the patients were diagnosed with pneumonia, but when numbers rose significantly above normal levels for the time of year, medical staff became suspicious.

Legionnaire's Disease is fatal in 10-15 per cent of cases, although younger people usually make a full recovery. It is caused by the legionella pneumophila bacterium and can be spread through air conditioning units, which is why outbreaks often occur during summer months.

The bacterium breeds in warm, moist conditions and infection follows the inhalation of droplets of contaminated water.

There is an incubation period of between two and 10 days between infection and the onset of flu-like symptoms: headache, muscular and abdominal pain followed by fever, shaking and chills and a dry cough.

The worst affected patients may experience breathing difficulties and will have to be treated in hospital. Men over 50 who smoke or have existing health problems are most at risk of contracting the disease. It cannot be passed from one person to another.

Legionnaire's Disease took its name from the first identified outbreak in 1976, at a Philadelphia hotel hosting the American Legion organisation.

In October 1998, the bacterium was found in part of the water supply at Buckingham Palace after routine tests were carried out. That year there were 226 cases of the disease in England and Wales and 25 people died. Provisional national statistic figures showed there were 14 deaths from the disease last year.

Increased vigilance and safety checks on water cooling and air conditioning systems have reduced the number of outbreaks.

Mr John Lee of the Central Public Health Laboratory said the most likely scenario was that the Cumbrian outbreak had been caused by a cooling tower.

- (Guardian Service)