Saturday, May 10, 2014

Legionella on ice

File:Legionella Plate 01.png"Legionnaires' disease" was the name originally given to an illness observed at a 1976 American Legion convention. Today, we call the illness associated with Legionella pneumophila infection, which can range from mild respiratory illness to severe pneumonia, "legionellosis". Legionella bacteria exist naturally in water and moist soil and colonies tend to grow in warm water, pools of which often form in improperly operated or maintained HVAC systems, hot tubs, and hot water systems. Legionella is an important cause of both hospital- and community-acquired pneumonia in both immunocompetent and immunosuppressed patients. Hospital-acquired cases are often associated with potable water systems colonised with Legionella.

A story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently described an unusual outbreak at a Pittsburgh hospital. Although the epidemiology showed an association with ice chips, investigators were unable to find Legionella in the hospital water system. How could Legionella appear in ice from machines supplied by cold (not hot) water lines free from the bacterium? It was ultimately determined reservoirs within hospital ice machines were warmed by internal compressors, thus allowing Legionella colonies to grow.

Previous outbreaks involving ice makers and Legionella have been described in the literature (see, e.g., Schuetz et al, 2009, Graman et al, 1997, and Stout et al, 1985), but I doubt that many would immediately respond "ice machine" when asked about likely sources of Legionella infection in a hospital. Though anecdotal, this story illustrates how counter-intuitive outbreak investigation can be: One wouldn't necessarily think to look in a freezer for a bug that needs warm water to grow. But there it was, and hospital investigators figured it out when the ice chips were implicated. Bravo! 

(image source: Wikipedia)

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