More than 100 people contracted Legionnaires’ disease from 2014 to 2015 in Genesee County, Michigan. Of those, 12 have died. As more evidence becomes available, officials at the Center for Disease Control are learning the full extent of this devastating outbreak—and are using genetic testing to pinpoint the source.
Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services has focused exclusively on McLaren-Flint Hospital as the culprit, ordering the hospital to turn over any information related to Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Michigan state officials have gone so far as to call the incident the “largest healthcare-associated Legionnaire’s outbreak known” in the United States. But recent studies have found that the hospital may not be culpable.
Molecular testing by the CDC in late 2016 established the connection between a water sample taken from McLaren-Flint hospital and three samples from patients who were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. The only problem is that one of the individuals was never treated at the hospital.
Therefore, experts suspect that Legionnaires’ was at high levels throughout Flint’s water system during the time in which the city used the Flint River as its source of water without treating it to make it less corrosive to lead pipes and plumbing. It appears that lead exposure wasn’t the only damaging outcome of the water crisis in Flint. It also most likely contributed to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
“The presence of Legionella in Flint was widespread,” Dr. Janet Stout, a research associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh told MLive. “The (laboratory) results show that strains (of the bacteria) were throughout the water system.”
Amy Pruden, a Virginia Tech professor studying Legionella in Flint water, found Legionella levels up to 1,000 times higher than normal tap water in Flint. She and fellow scientists hypothesized that the interrupted corrosion control and associated release of iron, nutrients, and depleted chlorine residual in the distribution system may have lead to high levels of Legionella.
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The study also indicates that finding a patient whose bacteria matched the McLaren-Flint Hospital strain without having been hospitalized there “suggest(s) that same strain may have been elsewhere.”
“Despite the fact that dozens of Legionnaires’ disease cases have been reported in patients that have had absolutely no contact with our facilities, and despite the growing consensus among public health and infectious disease specialists that the city’s use of the Flint River as a water source is the prime contributor to our community’s Legionnaires’ disease epidemic, the state refuses to broaden its perspective and hold itself and others accountable for the inaction of prior years,” the hospital wrote in a released statement.
Complicating the matter is the discovery that public health officials first identified the Flint River as a potential source of the city’s Legionnaires’ outbreak as early as 2014, but city, county, state, and federal officials never told the public until more than a year later.
In fact, MLive reports that “Public health officials from Genesee County, the state of Michigan, and the federal government all worked on a notice to tell the public about a massive Legionella outbreak in in the Flint area in 2015 but shelved their plans before delivering the warning.”
Hundreds of Flint residents will live with the consequences of this gross negligence—the medical bills, the damage to their bodies, and the absence of loved ones—for a lifetime. It is our responsibility to examine the incident and ensure that history never repeats itself. What protective policies can be put in place to prevent similar circumstances in the future?