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Four patients at UW Health’s University Hospital on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison contracted Legionnaires’ disease, the first cases of hospital-acquired Legionella there in 23 years.

Two patients were discharged, but the two other patients are still at University Hospital, a 505-bed regional medical center located at 600 Highland Avenue. The patients’ ages range from 45 years old to 80, and all were experiencing health-related issues before they contracted Legionnaires’ disease.

There is concern that other cases will materialize.

“It’s a frightening thing for most patients to hear,” said Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at University Hospital.  “But we care for a very sick population, so we’re very cognizant of the concerns they have.”

University Hospital in Madison reports Legionnaires outbreak

Four patients at UW Health’s University Hospital at the University of Wisconsin-Madison contracted Legionnaires’ disease. Two are still hospitalized.

University Hospital: source suspected

The source of the four illnesses is believed to the hospital’s hot-water system, which recently was adjusted in an attempt to save water.

“The flow was altered in the system,” Safdar said. “So, instead of being at a consistent high flow, it was altered to be more flexible to be on demand.”

University Hospital officials said steps were being taken to address the suspected risk to patients, such as:

  • The use of showers was temporarily halted when officials became aware of the diagnoses.
  • A “hyperchlorination” process was performed to flush all hot-water lines in the building to eliminate Legionella, the bacteria that produces Legionnaires’ disease.

American Family Children’s Hospital – located next to University Hospital at 1675 Highland Avenue – has not been affected, according to the news release. AFC Hospital is an 87-bed facility with pediatric and surgical neonatal intensive care units.

University Hospital: symptoms

Legionnaires’ disease develops anywhere from two to 10 days after exposure to Legionella, and symptoms generally begin with the following:

  • severe headaches
  • muscle pains
  • fever, which can be 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • chills.

By the second or third day, symptoms can worsen to include:

  • cough, which can produce mucus and sometimes blood
  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • chest pains, or pleuritic chest pain (also called pleurisy or pleuritis, which is an inflammation of the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity)
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, vomiting, nausea)
  • mental changes and confusion.

Although Legionnaires’ disease primarily affects the lungs, it can cause infections in wounds and other parts of the body, including the heart.

University Hospital: difficult diagnosis

Legionnaires’ disease is also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia, and it is a severe type of lung infection. Statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate about 25,000 annual cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) in the United States. Only 5,000 of those cases are reported, however, because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.

If diagnosed early enough, Legionnaires’ disease is treatable with antibiotics. If that does not occur, however, severe complications can develop, and the disease can become deadly.

University Hospital: high-risk groups

Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 or older
  • people with chronic lung disease, or COPD (most commonly, emphysema or bronchitis)
  • smokers, either current or former
  • alcoholics
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • organ-transplant recipients
  • people on a specific drug protocol, such as corticosteroids.

University Hospital: Legionella

Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets (vapor or mist). The bacteria grow best in warm water, and they are found primarily in human-made environments.

Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks and clusters have been linked to a number of sources, including:

  • water systems, like those in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • large plumbing systems
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • mist machines, like those in the produce sections of grocery stores
  • hand-held sprayers
  • swimming pools, whirlpools, hot tubs
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • decorative fountains.