There are now 13 deaths associated with the massive outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Quebec City. Experts say the outbreak is under control since the onset date of the last person to get sick was August 29. However, there are still 180 people who have been infected and many are still recovering from their illnesses. At this juncture, authorities have not yet located the source of the outbreak. But a report will be released to the public in mid-October that details the investigation, including the towers that were tested along with the results. Overall, the situation in Canada is very similar to the outbreak in Scotland earlier this summer. Much can be learned from both tragic outbreaks.
Earlier this summer, over 100 people became sick with Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh as officials scrambled to find the source. Three people ended up dying from the disease. Authorities claimed that industrial cooling towers in the city were to blame and that passers-by in the community were being infected by contaminated mist that originated in these towers. In Quebec, cooling towers are also the supposed source. In both cases, poor maintenance of cooling towers was cited as a trend. Similarly, investigations have yet to prove an exact source for either outbreak, frustrating officials and the public alike. While the death tolls and number of sick were higher in Quebec, the damages in Scotland were severe as well.
What do these outbreaks tell us? First of all, these outbreaks convey the need for building owners to properly maintain their cooling towers. Stricter regulations with penalties for noncompliance would be a step in the right direction. Building owners should be better informed of the risk of Legionella in their cooling towers, and about steps they can take to prevent growth.
From an epidemiological perspective, these outbreaks show that authorities need to fine-tune their protocols to expedite the discovery of the source, so it can be shut down and remediated. In Quebec, officials had to begin their investigation by observing cooling towers from a high-rise rooftop and creating a map of possible sources. A registry of cooling towers and their associated maintenance records should have been created prior to the outbreak. More efficient investigations lead to fewer victims.
The two major outbreaks this summer—both similar in many ways–demonstrate the danger of Legionella and the need to improve policies that can prevent future outbreaks.
Jules Zacher is an attorney who focuses on Legionnaires’ disease litigation and has worked on cases throughout the U.S. His website, www.legionnairelawyer.com is a resource for information on Legionnaires’ disease, and related litigation.