New Brunswick

Moncton woman hospitalized by legionnaires' disease seeks answers about source

Claudette Lirette wants to know the origin of the legionella bacteria that put her in hospital and in an induced coma for five days in July. Lirette is one of 16 people who became sick during an outbreak in Moncton.

After 10 days in hospital, Claudette Lirette says the public should know where the outbreak began

Claudette Lirette was among 16 people who became sick in Moncton during an oubreak this summer of legionnaires' disease. Lirette and her brother-in-law, Robert DeMone, say they deserve to know the source of the outbreak. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Claudette Lirette wants to know the origin of the legionella bacteria that put her in hospital and in an induced coma for five days in July.

Lirette is one of 16 people Public Health officials say became sick with the severe form of pneumonia as part of an outbreak in Moncton that began in mid-July and was declared over this week. The illness can be deadly. 

"I don't find it's right," Lirette, 53, said in an interview. "People should have a right to know where it's coming from."

Dr. Yves Léger, the regional medical officer of health, said the government knows where the outbreak began, but there's "no benefit to the public" in revealing it.

At a news conference Thursday, he said the cooling tower that caused the outbreak was shut down and cleaned Aug. 13. The only information released is that it originated in a cooling tower atop a company's building in western Moncton.

Others who got sick also expressed frustration with the lack of answers, but they declined to be interviewed. At least one is in talks with a law firm and considering taking legal action, CBC News has confirmed. 

In place of actual information, speculation has run rampant. 

Those who fell ill and family members have begun talking to each other trying to pinpoint a source.

"It's ridiculous that we have to do it ourselves," Lirette said.

Robert DeMone, her brother-in-law, agreed. 

"If the province thinks this is over, and they're going to tell us we don't need to know, they can guess again," DeMone said. Pointing to Lirette, he said "somebody owes her an explanation."

Claudette Lirette, 53, says it's ridiculous those who became ill haven't been told the source and have to try to figure it out on their own. (Mélanie Léger/CBC)

"I can appreciate their perspective and I appreciate their feelings, especially if they were part of those 16 that were affected and I feel for that absolutely," Léger told reporters. "But, you know, the main message that I come back to is really, if there was a need to provide that information to protect the public we would do that.

"But at this point in time we don't feel that that's necessary and there are risks and benefits to doing that which come into play."

He has said providing the location could result in "anxiety" and people changing their plans to avoid the site, which he said no longer poses a risk to the public. He offered a similar answer when asked if people shouldn't be allowed to decide for themselves. 

Dr. Yves Léger, a regional medical officer of health, reiterated that if he felt there were a need to provide information on the source of the outbreak to protect the public, he would do so. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Lirette, who lives near Killam Drive in Moncton​​, doesn't remember much from late July.

Her legs were weak and she had signs of a cold. She passed out on her way to the washroom the night of July 19. She was placed in an induced coma at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre. 

"They told me I was sick and lucky to be alive," Lirette said. 

She's recovering since her release from hospital July 29 but still gets tired easily and can't stay up long. It's "scary" not knowing where the bacteria that sickened her came from, she said.

Stagnant water in cooling systems like these in Quebec City are often pinpointed as the source of legionnaires' disease outbreaks. (Radio-Canada)

Legionella bacteria are present in many natural waterways. Improperly maintained man-made water systems, such as air conditioners, cooling towers, whirlpools, spas and decorative fountains, are often the source of legionnaires' outbreaks. 

Cooling towers are a heat-removal device on many commercial and industrial buildings where, under certain conditions, the bacteria can thrive and be released into the surrounding environment.  

The illness doesn't spread from person to person but through inhaling mist that contains the bacteria.

"It gets released in the environment and then the winds can pick it up and spread it many, many kilometres, which can explain why we've seen cases spread out across the city," Léger told Information Morning Moncton on Aug. 23. 

Léger said there's 'no public benefit' to letting the public know the location of a cooling tower that caused the outbreak in Moncton. (Shane Magee?CBC)

"The risk isn't specifically at that site, but it's across the city as a whole," he said. 

Officials interviewed those who became ill and focused on 26 possible locations with cooling towers in Moncton after consulting with municipal officials.

That was narrowed to six sites, and then one suspected source. Testing confirmed the bacteria at that site matched the bacteria found in samples from two of the people who became ill.

Officials in several other provinces said they would share where an outbreak starts if an action is required to ensure public safety. 

"In the event of a cluster of legionnaires' being linked to a particular building, we would disclose the location of that building if there was a purpose for releasing that information," said Kaitlyn Abel, a spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Health Ministry. 

In Newfoundland, Tina Newhook said the province's Promotion of Public Health Act sets out that if the chief medical health officer believes there's a serious risk to public health, they must immediately take reasonable steps to disclose the nature and source of a risk. 

In Quebec City, public health officials revealed the source of a 2012 legionnaires' outbreak that killed 13 people and sickened about 180 others was a cooling tower on a five-storey building. 

Régis Labeaume, Quebec City's mayor, expressed indignation that steps had not been taken to prevent such an outbreak after one in his city in 1996.

A 1997 report called for Quebec to create a registry of buildings with cooling towers in their ventilation systems so an outbreak could be quickly isolated. It also called for tougher regulations for inspecting and maintaining the towers.

A coroner's report also said the 2012 Quebec City outbreak was preventable.

"Despite outbreaks of legionellosis that occurred in the past, adequate controls were not in place and the public health authorities in Quebec did not have the necessary tools to effectively manage the crisis," the report stated.

Régis Labeaume, mayor of Quebec City, said recommendations from 1997 could have helped prevent a deadly outbreak of legionnaires' disease in his city in 2012. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Quebec implemented a cooling tower registry and other regulations. 

New Brunswick doesn't have a similar system, something DeMone said should be done following the Moncton outbreak. He said the outbreak raises a number of questions about whether proper maintenance was carried out and the rules in place in the province to prevent outbreaks. 

Léger said now that the outbreak is over, public health officials will review what happened and write a report with recommendations.

He said a registry of cooling towers could be one of the recommendations.

About the Author

Shane Magee

Reporter

Shane Magee is a Moncton-based reporter for CBC.

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