FRANTIC efforts are today ongoing to unravel the mystery of a rare legionella bug that has left four Lothian gardeners critically ill in intensive care.
Experts from across the globe are being consulted in a bid to understand how legionella longbeachae, which is found in compost, has come to strike in the region so suddenly.
In the last five years, fewer than ten cases of legionella longbeachae have been discovered in Scotland, yet it has hit four people in the Lothians in a short space of time.
The victims, aged between 62 and 84, are based in Edinburgh city, West Lothian and Midlothian and no link, other than them all being gardeners, has yet been established.
Two have been discharged from hospital but the others remain seriously unwell and are in intensive care at the Capital’s Royal Infirmary.
Experts are investigating whether soil contaminated with the bug, which is common in Australia, came from a single location originally.
Professor Alison McCallum, NHS Lothian’s director of public health and public policy, admitted that experts had not yet been able to establish a source. “We really can’t say whether these cases are directly linked as we haven’t yet completed our investigation,” she said. “They are linked to gardening, that’s what these people have in common.”
Gardeners are being advised not to give up their hobby, but to protect themselves against the strain, which can be fatal.
The fact that it is found in compost is particularly dangerous as gardening is traditionally popular with older people who are more likely to have other health conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to legionella.
It cannot be passed from person to person, but is inhaled by breathing in tiny dust particles or very small drops of water. While the outbreak is not linked in any way to the Edinburgh legionnaires disease crisis last year, many of the same techniques are being used in lines of inquiry.
All of the gardeners had purchased different products containing compost prior to becoming unwell and samples of compost have been sent to laboratories for testing.
NHS Lothian offered assurances that the risk to the wider public is low.
Prof McCallum added: “Because this is so rare we are working with experts in this particular area to try to get to the bottom of it and we would seek advice from our colleagues internationally.
“Our basic advice is not to give up gardening but be alert and be safe.”
The four cases have all been reported over the last two months.