CDC says healthcare-acquired Legionnaires’ disease is widespread and deadly

Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes the majority of Legionnaires’ disease cases and outbreaks. (CDC)

Hospitals must take immediate action to prevent the spread of Legionnaires’ disease, caused by a waterborne bacterium that can lead to severe and often deadly pneumonia, which has been found in contaminated water systems in their buildings.

Twenty-five percent of patients who are exposed to Legionella while in a healthcare facility die, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report analyzed 2,809 cases that occurred in 2015 in 20 states and New York City. Researchers found that 468 cases were possibly associated with a healthcare facility, while 85 cases definitely were. Four out of five cases involved patients who stayed at long-term care facilities, one out of five occurred in hospitals, and some patients had been in both types of facilities.

Among the cases that involved possible healthcare exposure, 49% occurred in hospitals and 26% were exposed in outpatient clinics.

The bacteria often grow in water systems that aren’t appropriately managed. Patients can get the disease by breathing in small droplets of water containing Legionella and are at greater risk of getting sick and dying from the disease. The contaminated water droplets can be spread by showerheads and sink faucets, medical equipment such as respiratory machines, ice machines and cooling towers, which are parts of large air-conditioning units.

The report uncovered a widespread deadly and preventable problem that is happening every day in healthcare facilities across the country, CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. "This report suggests that in many healthcare facilities, there's really just an outbreak waiting to happen,” she said, NPR reported.

To prevent outbreaks, the CDC offers a free toolkit and recommends that hospital leaders:

  • Build a team focused on keeping their facility’s water safe.
  • Create and use a water management program that limits Legionella and other waterborne germs from growing and spreading.
  • Work with staff and clinicians to identify Legionnaires’ disease cases early and determine whether the cases may be associated with the healthcare facility.
  • Report cases to local public health authorities quickly and work with them to investigate and prevent additional cases.