Health care facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals must do a better job keeping their water systems from being contaminated with the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Out of the more than 6,000 Legionnaires' cases occurring nationwide in 2015, the CDC studied 2,809 cases in 20 states and New York City. Of those, 468 were ruled to possibly be associated with health care facilities, and 85 were definitely associated, with a majority of those (68) being long-term care facilities. Among the definite health care associated cases, 88 percent occurred in people over age 60.
Legionnaires' disease is a potentially life-threatening form of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacteria. Older people and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable, leaving hospital and nursing home patients at greater risk. Patients are exposed when breathing in small droplets of water containing the Legionella bacteria while using showers, sinks and bathtubs. Even medical equipment that uses water could be contaminated.
Health facilities are particularly susceptible because they are large and complex structures and have water management systems that may not be adequately managed. The bacteria thrives in environments in which disinfectant levels are low or water temperatures are warm.
For the purposes of the study, patients who had been hospitalized or in a long-term care facility for 10 days prior to having Legionnaires’ symptoms were considered to have a “definite health care association.”
One-fourth of people with definite health care–associated Legionnaires’ disease die, according to the CDC. To combat this issue, health care facility leaders, medical providers and public health professionals must coordinate effective water management programs, the study states. For patients who have already been exposed, the CDC recommends rapid patient identification through lab testing and prompt intervention to prevent additional cases from occurring.
The CDC report is available here.