CDC: Manage water to help prevent Legionnaires' disease

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An illustration of Legionella pneumophila, which causes most Legionnaires’ disease cases.
An illustration of Legionella pneumophila, which causes most Legionnaires’ disease cases.

If you want to decrease the likelihood of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in your community, make sure you're managing the water system properly.

That advice comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which on Tuesday released a new “Vital Signs” report about the disease and how to prevent it.

“Many of the Legionnaire's disease outbreaks in the United States over the past 15 years could have been prevented,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "Better water system management is the best way to reduce illness and save lives.”

Cases of Legionnaires' disease are on the rise, according to the CDC, and senior living communities are not immune. In August, for instance, disease-causing Legionella bacteria were found in a Florida assisted living community's water for second time in two years, sickening several residents. And an Ohio retirement community in the summer of 2013 was the scene of the largest and deadliest Legionnaires' disease outbreak in state history, resulting in six resident deaths and dozens of illnesses.

Long-term care facilities in general, in fact, along with hotels, cruise ships and hospitals, are common places for problems to develop, according to the the government agency. Issues identified in building-associated outbreaks include inadequate disinfectant levels, human error and equipment breakdowns that lead to the growth of Legionella bacteria in water systems.

The CDC reviewed its investigations of outbreaks from 2000 through 2014 and found that the most common source of building-associated Legionnaires' disease outbreaks was drinkable water (56%), such as water used for showering, followed by cooling towers that are part of large air conditioning systems (22%) and hot tubs (7%). Other sources included industrial equipment (4%) and decorative fountain/water features (4%).

So what can building owners and managers do? The CDC has several suggestions:

  • Learn about and follow newly published standards for Legionella water management programs.
  • Determine whether the water systems in your buildings are at increased risk of growing and spreading Legionella.
  • Develop and use a Legionella water management program, as needed.
  • Monitor and respond to changes in water quality.
  • Advise residents to seek care quickly if they develop symptoms of pneumonia.

Additional tips and information are posted on the CDC website.

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