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Scientist Says Water on Hospital Roof May Have Caused Killer Disease

May 6, 1985

STAFFORD, England (AP) _ A government scientist says an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease suspected of killing 30 people may have been spawned by deadly bacteria in the cooling towers of a hospital.

In what health authorities have described as Britain’s biggest such outbreak, 123 people with influenza symptoms - most of them middle-aged or elderly - have been admitted to three hospitals in this central English town over the past three weeks.

Seventy people are still under care in the hospitals, the Mid-Staffordshire Health Authority reported, while 30 have died and others have been treated and discharged. Doctors have reclassified eight people as having other diseases.

Almost all the victims are over 50. Doctors say younger people can withstand the influenza-like disease and may not even know they have it.

The disease claimed another life early today when a 60-year-old woman died at the Stafford hospital, according to an official there, who spoke on condition he was not identified. He did not name the woman.

Dr. Spence Galbraith, director of the government’s Communicable Disease Surveillance Center in London, said Sunday night that almost everyone treated for symptoms of the disease had visited the District General Hospital for treatment as outpatients in the two weeks before the outbreak.

″There is evidence suggesting that the source of the infection is indeed in Stafford District General Hospital and might be related to the cooling towers of the air-conditioning system. But that is by no means proved,″ he said.

He said it was possible that water droplets from the towers were borne on the wind as fine spray through the windows of the outpatient department of the hospital, which is part of Britain’s state-run National Health Service.

Standing water can harbor the bacteria and scientists were analyzing cultures grown from samples taken from the cooling towers.

Bacteria carried by an air conditioning system was identified as the source of the disease at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in July 1976. A total of 221 Legionnaires contracted the disease, and 34 of them died in the outbreak, the first time the disease was identified.

Dr. John Francis, a physician treating the victims, said that other people could have died from the disease before it was belatedly identified last week.

Local health officials at first attributed the outbreak to influenza, but autopsies and blood tests later disclosed the presence of the bacterium Legionella pneumophilia, which is linked to Legionnaires’ disease.

More cases may be diagnosed because the disease has a two-week incubation period. Some 3,500 people who attended the outpatients’ department between April 22 and May 3 are being checked.

Water in the towers has been heavily treated with extra chlorine to kill the bacteria if they are present.

Health authorities have said the hospital will continue working as normal.

The British Broadcasting Corp. reported early today that some doctors in Stafford want the hospital closed until all test reports are complete.

All of the patients admitted so far have been from one of four towns within a 15-mile radius of Stafford, an industrial city 134 miles northwest of London.

The largest previous outbreak of the disease in Britain was last fall in Glasgow, Scotland, in which one person died and 30 others became ill. The outbreak was traced to a brewery cooling tower.

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