New Brunswick

One person who had legionnaires' disease has died, Public Health says

Public Health says one of the seven people who contracted legionnaires' disease in the Moncton region has died.

Seven people in the Moncton region contracted the illness

Dr. Yves Léger, regional medical officer of health, says one of the seven people who contracted legionnaires' disease has died. (Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio-Canada)

One of the seven people who contracted legionnaires' disease in the Moncton region has died, Public Health says.

Dr. Yves Léger, regional medical officer of health, said for privacy reasons he couldn't offer details about the person other than that they had other existing risk factors.

Léger said he couldn't definitively say if the person's recent death was caused by legionnaires' disease.

"I imagine that it's probably in large part linked to their infection," he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "But in terms of the exact nature and details, those still have to be clarified at this point."

Seven people have become ill with the severe form of pneumonia. An outbreak was declared in early August. Léger said there have been no additional cases reported, and one person remains in hospital.

The seven included three men and four women. One person is in their mid-20s, and the rest are between their 50s and 90s.

Multiple possible sources

There are now questions about whether the legionella bacteria came from one source.

Léger said testing by a lab in Quebec has determined that in three of those who became ill, each had a different strain. Testing is still underway on samples from three other people.

"So it's certainly possible that we have three or even four that are identical, which could mean that ... we're looking at one common source for these cases, which means that we continue our investigation in that light," he said.

"It's certainly also possible that all six patients will be completely different from one another, and in which case we're dealing with completely different cases that don't have a common source."

There are occasional legionnaires' disease cases, known as sporadic cases, that occur and aren't part of an outbreak. In some cases, a source can't be found.

An average of five cases were reported per year across New Brunswick, according to a 2018 report.

Legionella bacteria is found in many natural waterways, but it's also often found in man-made systems like decorative fountains, spas and cooling towers. 

The outbreak was declared Aug. 6 when six people were sick. Public Health has previously said two of the seven people did not live in the Moncton area, but had travelled through the region and then developed symptoms.

Previously, Public Health suspected a cooling tower somewhere in the city was to blame for the outbreak, given the lack of commonalities between the patients. 

Testing of more than 50 cooling towers in the Moncton region has been carried out since the outbreak began.

Three had elevated bacteria counts that required cleaning, but Léger said samples from those towers must be compared to samples from the patients to determine if they were the source of the illness. 

"We continue to follow up on those three sites at this time, and we're regularly sampling them as well to make sure that the cleaning and disinfection worked," Léger said.

Testing has indicated that three of those who became ill had different bacteria strains, indicating there wasn't one single source. (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control/Associated Press)

The towers are mechanical equipment with water and a fan that are part of the centralized air-cooling system for a variety of types of buildings. Bacteria can grow and spread into the community on mist carried from the towers by the wind. The illness doesn't spread person-to-person.

Initially, Public Health was focusing on towers in "western Moncton." Nine tested showed some level of legionella bacteria, but most were at very low levels, Léger said Aug. 16. 

Two had legionella bacteria at levels requiring cleaning and disinfection, but Léger said they weren't high enough to be a "smoking gun" or require them to be immediately shut down.

Testing expanded to other areas of the city. That included seven cooling towers the city's northeastern area, mainly around the Caledonia Industrial Park, and roughly 11 in the downtown core.

People who become ill with pneumonia-like or respiratory symptoms, such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headache, are urged to seek medical care or call 811. Legionnaires' disease can be fatal in about 10 to 15 per cent of cases.

It's the second outbreak in the region in two years. In 2019, Public Health ordered cooling towers atop Organigram's cannabis production facility shut down and cleaned because of high levels of bacteria. Sixteen people became ill in that outbreak.

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