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A study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases showed that summer patients who are vulnerable to infection run a greater risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia, during warm, humid weather. The infection is caused by Legionella bacteria that can live in hospital water systems and throughout the environment.
Legionella bacteria, while usually not a problem for healthy adults, can be most serious and even fatal for patients who are immune compromised, including those in intensive care units, the very young and the very old, the chronically ill, and post-surgical, cancer and transplant patients. These patients risk becoming infected through a buildup of microbes that can inhabit a hospital’s water system, where they have oftentimes become resistant to traditional methods of cleaning and disinfection.
At-risk patients can become ill through any exposure to hospital water, whether through ingestion, ice cubes, bathing, inhalation of shower mist or being treated with equipment washed in hospital water.
“Many healthcare professionals aren’t aware of what’s lurking in their water in the summer or any season, especially the water used with critically ill and at-risk patients. As a result, countless Legionella and other harmful microorganisms that can cause serious infections go undetected,” according to Janet E. Stout, Ph.D., an international expert on Legionella and other microbes in hospital water. Stout, director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory and a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, is a strong advocate for reducing the risk of waterborne infection in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities.
Patients, their families and caregivers need to be aware of the potential for waterborne infection any time they are hospitalized, particularly if they are seriously ill or undergoing treatment that affects their immune systems, according to Stout.
Hospital infections affect two million people in hospitals and nursing homes each year, adding $30.5 billion annually to the nation’s health tab. This year more than 100,000 people will die from these infections, the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.
18,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease are reported in the U.S. each year, and nearly 40,000 lives are known to have been lost to the disease over the past two dozen years as a result of infections acquired in the hospital, with thousands more cases thought to go undetected or misdiagnosed.
Here is a list of things to think about when staying in a hospital to avoid being at risk: