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Scots Investigate Worst Legionnaires Outbreak Since 1980s

The Scottish Government’s Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon
The Scottish government’s health secretary Nicola Sturgeon said, “The strong working assumption is that the source is a water-cooling tower.” Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

June 7 (Bloomberg) -- Scotland’s health officials are trying to pinpoint the source of the worst outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the country since the early 1980s as the number of people infected continues to climb.

Sixteen cooling towers at four sites in southwest Edinburgh are the focus of the investigation. There are now 24 confirmed and 37 suspected cases of the disease in the Scottish capital, with 12 people in intensive care in the hospital, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said today. A 56-year-old man died this week while undergoing treatment.

“The key message is that the risk to public health is low, nevertheless there are a significant number of cases,” Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament. “All appropriate action is being taken to minimise the risk of further infection.”

The airborne bacteria are contracted by inhaling small drops of contaminated water and cases often involve cooling vents in air conditioning and heating systems in buildings or showers at places such as public swimming pools. The worst incident in the U.K. in recent years was at a leisure facility in Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England, in 2002 when seven people died and 180 people were infected, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

The 16 towers were cleaned with chemicals on June 3 and June 4 and more tests are taking place while the source still remains uncertain, Sturgeon said. It may not ever be possible to conclude “beyond reasonable doubt” where the outbreak came from, she reiterated at a press conference today.

Older Men

While more people are being reported as infected in as the outbreak unfolds, fewer are going into intensive care.

NHS Lothian, the public health authority for the Edinburgh area, dealt with eight more cases yesterday compared with June 5. Most of the cases involve men over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions, officials said. There was an increase of three confirmed cases overnight.

“All of the affected patients have links to this particular area where the cooling towers are,” Sturgeon said yesterday. It may be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the outbreak beyond any reasonable doubt, she said.

Legionnaires’ disease isn’t contagious so it can’t be passed from person to person, officials said.

The first case in the Edinburgh outbreak was identified on May 28. The disease initially causes flu-like symptoms such as high fever and muscle pain. Once the bacteria infect the lungs, they can cause a persistent cough and intestinal problems leading to diarrhea and nausea. It’s treated with antibiotics and two of the people who were in a serious condition have since been discharged, Sturgeon said yesterday.

A probable mortality rate is 10 to 15 percent of those diagnosed, Jim McMenamin, a consultant epidemiologist at Health Protection Scotland, said yesterday.

“The greatest risk is among those people with chronic medical conditions and who smoke and perhaps also have a large alcohol consumption,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at; Tim Farrand in Edinburgh at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at

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