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Confirmed: Hearts victory parade exposed to legionella bug

Several sites in Edinburgh are under investigation. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Several sites in Edinburgh are under investigation. Picture: Ian Rutherford

HEALTH chiefs have confirmed that the Scottish Cup Final victory parade was exposed to the legionella outbreak, the Evening News can reveal.

NHS Lothian said the parade took place during the timescale, and within the area of exposure and that a number of patients suffering from the disease attended the event near Tynecastle on that day.

It is understood at least one of the five patients being treated outside the Capital was a supporter who has only made one recent visit to Edinburgh – to attend the cup final parade.

Public health experts investigating the outbreak – which has claimed one life so far – interviewed all patients affected by legionnaires’ disease and found a number had been to the street event in Gorgie on May 20.

However, they insisted it was not a common factor when examining all of the 82 cases so far and only contributed a “small number”.

Despite this they confirmed yesterday that the parade route did fall within the area of exposure. It came as the cooling towers at the North British Distillery – which lies alongside the parade route – were shut down after the company was served an Improvement Notice by the Health and Safety Executive for alleged failures to adequately control the risk of legionella.

Both the HSE and the company said this did not mean the site was the source of the outbreak.

Dr Duncan McCormick, public health consultant at NHS Lothian, said: “The cup final celebrations at Tynecastle took place during the period we are considering in our investigation.

“We have asked all patients a wide range of questions to establish common factors to help us identify the source of the outbreak. The majority of cases have a connection to the Dalry, Gorgie and Saughton areas of Edinburgh but only a small number attended the event at Tynecastle.”

It has also emerged that the search for the source of the outbreak spread to two new sites, including the National Museum of Scotland on Friday. Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive carried out a “precautionary visit” to the Chambers Street attraction but raised no immediate concerns.

“We constantly test and monitor our water systems on an ongoing basis and undertook an extra chemical treatment earlier this week as a precaution” a spokeswoman for the museum explained.

The HSE also inspected facilities at defence contractor Selex Galileo in north Edinburgh. Peter Dillon, head of operations at the firm, said that inspectors “were satisfied with our control procedures for legionnaires”.

This brings to six the total number of sites which have been checked for the deadly legionella bacteria.

Pharmaceutical firm Macfarlan Smith, insurance firm Aegon, Burton’s Foods, and the North British Distillery – which has voluntarily ceased production for the present time – are the four existing sites whose cooling towers have been checked.

HSE today told the Evening News that further precautionary visits will continue to be made.

The news came as it emerged that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency suspended work in Edinburgh last week over concerns their staff might contract the disease.

Meanwhile, as the Scottish Government confirmed it is now only recording suspected cases where pneumonia was a symptom, it was claimed the true scale of the legionnaire’s outbreak may never be known.

NHS Lothian says “hundreds” of tests have been carried out on people in the Lothians who have attended their doctor concerned that they might be suffering from legionnaires’ disease.

Many more are thought to be receiving precautionary antibiotics without undergoing testing.

NHS Lothian said that it wasn’t possible to provide figures for the number of patients attending GPs with symptoms of legionnaires’.

Dr Duncan McCormick said: “The number of patients with confirmed or suspected legionnaires’ disease has continued to increase in line with our expectations. Our hospitals, GPs and out-of-hours services are doing an excellent job in responding to this outbreak and the increased pressure it has put on our services.

“Infection with legionella mainly causes mild symptoms. If symptoms are more severe and include pneumonia then the patient will be diagnosed with legionnaires’ disease.

“Now that we are seeing more cases in the community with less severe symptoms, we have refined our recording of suspected cases to be only those suffering from pneumonia.”

It emerged yesterday that NHS 24 had received 630 calls to the dedicated helpline for legionnaires’ disease.

And Professor Hugh Pennington, Scotland’s leading bacteriologist, said many more could have been infected.

The disease is caused by breathing in small droplets of water contaminated by legionella bacteria, and Professor Pennington said the number of cases would depend on what the source was.

“There is probably quite a substantial number of cases, much larger than the actual number of [diagnosed] cases” he said. “That could well be a very large number. It depends on exactly what has happened.

“Was it one big puff coming out of a cooling tower, or was it a cooling tower that had been leaking over several days?”

Professor Pennington added that he expected public health teams in Edinburgh to be “aggressively” searching for cases which may otherwise not have been picked up by tests.

“Quite a few people will have had mild illnesses, they don’t even go and see a doctor and if they do they don’t need particular treatment. They don’t have a sample taken and so they go ‘under the radar’ and only by doing special surveys can you find out.”

GPs surgeries in the south west of the Capital have been put under increased strain as a result of the outbreak.

One of the patients from the affected area who presented with similar symptoms to legionnaires’ disease was 16-year-old Ryan Reynolds, who described sickness, coughing fits, vomiting and sore joints.

His father, Paul, said a doctor at Whinpark Medical Centre in Saughton Road had proscribed anti-biotics as a precaution, although Ryan was not tested for the legionella bug.

Mr Reynolds said: “He has all the symptoms.

“I think it’s quite alarming that he wasn’t tested. How are they going to realise the true scale of the outbreak without testing?”

One in five inspectors axed by council

RORY REYNOLDS

CUTBACKS in the number of environmental health inspectors at Edinburgh City Council may have allowed the outbreak of legionnaires’ disease, experts have warned, as it emerged that nearly one in five staff have been axed in recent years.

Council chiefs reduced its staff by 18 per cent between 2009 and 2011 - double the national average for reductions when compared to other local authorities.

The city council was quick to point out that it is only responsible for inspecting the Aegon facility - which it said it had done so regularly - and that the other five suspected facilities linked to the legionella outbreak are monitored by the Health & Safety Executive due to their size.

The HSE itself has also suffered serious cuts to its field operations division, responsible for inspections, which also lost 18 per cent of its staff – more than 250 jobs – between 2007 and 2011.

Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environment research group at Stirling University, described the cuts as “staggering, shocking and savage”.

He said: “The crippling impact of cuts in staff numbers and resources is now threatening public health.

“These cuts must raise serious doubts about the capacity of such bodies to deal with similar future threats to public health.

“Saving money by cuts in personnel and resources could cost lives in the future.”

Inspectors’ union Prospect said preventative work place inspections had been slashed by a third last year from 30,000 to 20,000 a year due to funding cuts by UK ministers.

Simon Hester, chairman of the Prospect HSE branch, said: “Due to spending cuts, HSE’s occupational health expertise is extremely thinly spread, which has led to a lack of sufficient advice in the field.”

Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland, whose chief executive Tom Bell previously worked as an environmental health officer for the city council, said common sense suggested there is “some kind of relationship” between cutbacks and the legionnaires’ outbreak.

In response, a spokesman for the city council said: “Premises within the council’s enforcement remit are inspected in accordance with an ongoing inspection programme. Individual companies have a statutory duty to ensure their premises are maintained to protect the health and safety of both the work force and surrounding areas.”

DARLING TABLES QUESTION IN COMMONS

FORMER Chancellor Alistair Darling was set to raise the legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Commons today.

The Edinburgh South West Labour MP was asking Speaker John Bercow to allow an urgent question on exactly what inspection regime exists for cooling towers to prevent legionella outbreaks.

He called for an urgent review of guidelines. He said: “The critical I want to know what inspection regimes are in place for companies with cooling towers.

“This disease is extremely serious. Once it’s in the atmosphere you don’t know its consequences. I want to know where we are up to with the current investigation, but also how we stop future outbreaks.”

Gala Day still jumping despite outbreak fears

The Gorgie and Dalry Gala Day went ahead as planned on Saturday amid concern about the legionella outbreak.

Organisers had feared the crowds would stay away, but the gala saw a good turnout with the popular event featuring activities for all the family.

Gala Day co-ordinator Jim Young said: “The legionnaires’ disease thing hasn’t affected us at all, and we’re delighted.”

IN NUMBERS

36 confirmed cases of legionnaires’

44 suspected cases of legionnaires’

15 in intensive care

27 in general wards

16 cases being treated in the community

16 cases discharged from hospital

1 fatality as a result of the illness

 

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