Healthcare News & Insights

Hospital fountain blamed for Legionnaires’ outbreak

The most recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has been linked to a hospital lobby’s “water wall.”

The incident occurred in 2010, when eight people were infected with the potentially deadly form of pneumonia. A recently published study found that all eight people had been infected after simply walking by the decorative water wall-style fountain in a hospital lobby. (None of the people had been admitted to the hospital at the time of their exposure.)

All of the infected victims were workers, visitors or outpatients who were simply passing through the building. But all eight did have pre-existing medical conditions or other factors that made them more prone to infection.

Legionnaires’ is transmitted through inhalation near contaminated water sources.

Water walls and similar decorative touches are popular in hospitals because they’re soothing and calming for patients and their families. But this incident, the second time a water wall has been the vector for disease transmission, is raising questions about the safety of these particular decorative flourishes in a health care setting where people with already compromised immune systems are at additional risk of contracting a variety of illnesses.

The hospital in question, Aurora St. Luke’s South Shore near Milwaukee, shut down the water wall as soon as it was suspected of being involved in the outbreak. It has since been turned into a planter. Although the water wall was cleaned frequently, the fountains make an ideal breeding ground for bacteria since they’re generally at room temperature or slightly higher. In addition, the walls often feature decorative touches such as rocks that provide nooks and crannies that allow bacteria to thrive — and are notoriously hard to keep clean.

The study was published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

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