Legionella outbreak: Experts fear more victims

Gardeners have been urged to take precautions when handling compost. Picture: PA
Gardeners have been urged to take precautions when handling compost. Picture: PA
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HEALTH chiefs battling to trace the source of a potentially lethal soil bug have warned further cases may emerge.

Four Lothian gardeners have already been hospitalised by the compost-borne legionella and experts today admitted they are braced for further outbreaks.

A team of more than 20 experts is currently probing the rare legionella longbeachae cluster, believed to be the first such outbreak of its kind in the UK.

Health Protection Scotland (HPS), local authorities and NHS Lothian are to hold a crunch meeting tomorrow to try and establish the cause.

Dr Martin Donaghy, a public health consultant with HPS, said the explosion in infections in the region suggests the contaminated compost is from one original source.

And the top expert said they cannot rule out further cases emerging.

“We think there is something common,” he said. “We’re going on that premise because it’s so unusual, but we can’t say that definitively because we’re still 
investigating.”

Interviews have been carried out with the people who have been struck down with the bug or their families, while samples of compost or potting materials they used have been sent to laboratories for tests. Investigators will then attempt to trace positive samples back to a single source.

NHS Lothian said on Friday that two people were in intensive care in the Royal Infirmary while two others have been discharged after becoming infected with legionella longbeachae. They are from the Edinburgh city, West Lothian and Midlothian regions, aged between 62 and 84.

Dr Donaghy said that HPS was on the lookout for any new cases, which remain a possibility. The initial investigation is expected to take two weeks.

“I think further cases are unlikely, but we can’t rule it out,” he said. “We’re on the alert. This is a risk to the public. It’s a very low risk, but it’s something we need to get to the bottom of.”

The bug is more commonly found in Australia and New Zealand, with sporadic cases more common than 
outbreaks.

Legionella longbeachae was unheard of in the UK until recent years. Experts believe it may have become more common as a result of climate change, because less peat is now used in compost or because cases are now more accurately diagnosed.

The bug is a different strain to the one that claimed four lives in the Capital’s legionnaires’ disease outbreak last year. It is not passed between humans and is believed to be contracted through breathing in dust or water particles.

Gardeners have been advised not to give up their hobby, 
but have been asked to take precautions such as washing their hands after touching compost.