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Legionnaires' disease in cancer patient likely hospital-acquired

| Friday, July 1, 2016, 7:21 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh's North Side

Allegheny General Hospital officials said Friday that a cancer patient most likely contracted Legionnaires' disease in the hospital, contradicting earlier information that the infection was not hospital-acquired.

Dan Laurent, a spokesman for Allegheny Health Network, said two other unidentified patients may have contracted the illness at the hospital, but tests, so far, have not pinpointed the source of their infections. One has since died of an unrelated illness, he said.

A test in May that found the presence of Legionella bacteria in the cancer patient prompted an investigation, which found Legionella in two water tanks at the North Side hospital. However, on June 14, Allegheny Health Network officials said they did not believe the patient became sickened in the North Side hospital.

Late Friday afternoon, Laurent told the Tribune-Review that testing done by an independent special pathogens laboratory confirmed the infection was probably acquired in the hospital.

“The special pathogens lab conducted advanced testing on the patient to match his strain of Legionella with what was cultured, and it came back positive,” he said. “This doesn't change our action plan, continuing with contingency plans until the broader testing of the water by the special pathogens lab is completed.”

The patient, whose gender has not been revealed, visited the hospital's emergency department with a respiratory ailment on May 6 and was admitted. Doctors discharged that patient on May 20, but the person returned four days later with continued respiratory problems. A urine test revealed the patient had Legionella bacteria, spurring unscheduled testing of water tanks within the hospital.

Laurent, on Friday, said the patient has been “effectively treated.”

On June 14, positive Legionella cultures were found in a water tank supplying the hospital's Snyder Pavilion, which houses the main inpatient facility. The previous week, workers found positive cultures in a tank that supplies water to the health system's outpatient cancer center.

Administrators then shut down all drinking water sources on floors four through 12 inside Snyder Pavilion. Patient units have been supplied with bottled water since that time. Those with compromised immune systems are being told not to shower or bathe.

On Wednesday, AGH broadened its testing of water sources upon recommendation from the Allegheny County Health Department. Laurent said testing by the special pathogens lab is above and beyond the county's recommendation.

Legionella bacteria can lead to Legionnaires' disease, a form of pneumonia that can be fatal to patients with compromised immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People generally contract the disease by inhaling contaminated vapors.

The number of Legionnaires' diagnoses quadrupled between 2000 and 2014, the CDC reported. About one in 10 people infected will die from the disease, according to the CDC.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991.

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