Hospital Fountain Linked to Disease Outbreak in Wisconsin

PHOTO: Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria responsible for Legionnaires disease, is shown.
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An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Wisconsin has been linked to a decorative fountain found in a hospital lobby, according to a new study released Tuesday online in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Eight people were tested in 2010 after exhibiting symptoms of the Legionnaires' disease, which include fever, chills, headaches and coughing. All had contracted a severe form of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacterium and tested positive for the disease, which is transmitted by inhaling contaminated water.

Interestingly enough, none of the new patients were admitted to the hospital at the time they were exposed, leading experts to question the one common source of water: the lobby fountain.

"Legionella is very tolerant of higher water temperatures, it loves water," said Dr. Christopher Ohl, professor of infectious diseases at Wakeforest Baptist Medical Center. "It could happen anywhere, in a hotel, in an office building...really any water fountain has a potential of having this happen."

Three of the patients who contracted the disease were visiting the hospital as outpatients, while three others were simply picking up medication. The remaining two patients were either delivering materials to the facility or waiting in the lobby during a relative's appointment. Six out of the eight patients remembered passing directly through the lobby and past the fountain.

According to Ohl, Legionella typically effects people whose immune systems are compromised. All of the patients who tested positive for the disease reported underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or alcoholism that would have left them vulnerable to illness.

While Legionella has been reported in other places involving water, Ohl says Americans should not be afraid of walking past decorative fountains in general. In fact, Legionella is the bacteria that has typically been found in such outbreaks.

"I don't think people should be afraid of this," he said. "It could just as easily been the water system in your own home, from a shower at the YMCA...it's really impossible to reduce your risk."

He does, however, think hospitals should reconsider including them in their floor plans because there are too many people there with compromised immune systems.

"It's probably prudent to not have these types of fountains or water art," he said. "We as a public have to accept the risk of having pleasing things in public places."

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