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Administrators of the Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, New York had its water retested following the discovery of low levels of Legionella bacteria in its water system recently. To date, there have been no cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported.

The contamination was confined to an old section of the hospital. Administrators and experts theorise that the possible reasons of the contamination include old pipes, rarely used taps, and recent construction near the old building.

Legionnaires’ disease is classified as a type of bacterial pneumonia caused by the inhalation of water contaminated with Legionella bacteria. The bacteria are commonly found in natural bodies of freshwater. A small amount of the bacteria can survive in residential and commercial water supplies and their population can grow to alarming levels when the right conditions are met, especially when the water temperature rises above 20°C.

In fact, an outbreak in the Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada in 2014 was attributed to heat exchangers which were used to redistribute heat for the hot water systems. The heat exchangers were believed to facilitate bacterial growth as the water temperature had been maintained below 55°C.

Although treatment for Legionnaires’ disease has a good success rate when the disease is discovered and treated early, the disease can lead to fatalities for at-risks groups. These include smokers, the elderly, and hospital patients with weakened immune systems.

Although cooling towers are often linked to outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, there have been several cases of the disease being acquired due to contaminated water from hospitals.

In hospital-acquired Legionnaires’ disease, a person becomes infected through the inhalation of water droplets contaminated with the Legionella bacteria usually through the use of showers.

The use of control methods like water quality testing kits is crucial for hospitals since the symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease acquired from hospitals are similar to other diseases and are non-specific, often requiring laboratory testing. Experts say that hospital-acquired Legionnaires’ disease is often under-reported; when such a case is discovered, more undiscovered cases become known to authorities.

Apart from regular water testing, hospitals can implement a few different prevention strategies including environmental culture of water supply, documentation, and preventive maintenance of their plumbing supplies.

Experts also add that hot water systems in hospitals need to be flushed regularly because these are rarely used due to the shortened stay of patients. Many patients do not use the showers in their hospital rooms which can lead to the stagnation of water.