Legionnaires outbreak: Victims slam report

Gordon Erasmuson. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Gordon Erasmuson. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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VICTIMS of the deadly legionnaires’ outbreak that left four people dead – and another 1000 seeking medical aid – have branded investigations into the health scare a “whitewash” as it emerged NHS Lothian spent £725,800 tackling the disease.

In the wake of a major interim report into the alert, affected families say they are still waiting to discover the source of the outbreak that swept across south-west Edinburgh last summer.

The dossier, compiled by health chiefs, fails to provide a smoking gun, but it does lay bare the full extent of human suffering and the financial cost of containing the disease.

It has now emerged 45 people required hospital care, 19 received intensive care, with three people receiving treatment in a high-dependency unit from a total of 92 identified cases.

One year on it has also revealed a fourth person had died from the disease – and a breakdown of the cost of tackling the outbreak.

And while it admits investigations have “not yet been conclusive in identifying the exact source of the outbreak”, it does suggest it could be “a source near or in the EH11 2 postcode sector in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh”.

It alludes to the possibility, supported by data, that “cooling towers in south-west Edinburgh could be the source of Legionella in this outbreak”.

But residents struck down by the disease are fuming at the toothless report and demanding to know the origins of the disease that left many acutely ill.

William Dudgeon, 65, who lives in Broomhouse but worked near the Gorgie epicentre, is still taking medication for the symptoms he suffered and has been forced to retire.

He said victims have waited too long and “deserve an answer”.

“I think it’s terrible the way we have been treated,” he said. “I will be taking medication for the rest of my life after falling ill with legionnaires’ but I still don’t know what caused it. I used to go to Tynecastle all the time but now I don’t want to go because I have no energy.”

Gordon Erasmuson, 60, who was hospitalised after contracting the illness, also hit out at the so-called “smear campaign” being waged against victims after the health report claimed 79 per cent of confirmed Legionella cases were smokers while 70 per cent suffered underlying health conditions.

He said “That’s a typical smear. It’s like saying ‘they all smoke and drink – they’re all wasters anyway’. That’s what’s put into the public’s mind and that’s a horrible thing to do.”

On the failure to identify the source of the outbreak, he said: “The public have a right to know what’s going on and the way we have been treated – it’s been hellish.”

Patrick McGuire, a partner at Thompson Solicitors, which represents scores of affected residents, said the report’s failure to pinpoint the outbreak meant families were “no closer to getting justice”. He said: “There is a cloak of secrecy that’s been draped over everything. There is a gulf between due diligence and being informative but for the sake of the victims you have to bear in mind we have an entire community torn apart by this. They deserve and demand information and they have received nothing. It’s no way to treat anyone.”

Mr McGuire said families were being punished by the “slow-moving wheels of justice” and branded tight-lipped prosecution services – including the Health and Safety Executive – “kafka-esque and deplorable”.

Elaine Russell, a specialist lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing 35 legionnaires’ victims, said they had commissioned their own expert “to find the source of the outbreak as the authorities have so far just not provided enough information to those that have been affected”.

Politicians have also added their voice to the clamour for answers.

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack MSP that the people of south-west Edinburgh “need their questions to be answered”.

“While investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding the deaths, it is vital that the recommendations are taken forward as a matter of urgency to ensure that robust procedures are in place in future.”

Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi said it was not a surprise to find “no smoking gun” at this stage because of the difficulties detecting Legionella traces in water samples.

But he said: “All eyes will now be on the Health and Safety Executive to bring some closure to all those who fell ill or lived in the affected area.

“It is vital the HSE communicates more about the steps in their inquiry than they have until now. A year on from the Edinburgh outbreak, people still want answers.”

Professor Alison McCallum, director of public health and health policy at NHS Lothian, will present the interim report to the NHS board today.

She said: “It is one year since the outbreak and we understand the community’s desire to move on. While elements of the investigation are ongoing, a comprehensive review of the actions taken during the outbreak has been carried out and a range of recommendations have been made.”

Recommendations include rehearsing a major outbreak plan annually and taking steps “to support the rapid distribution of information to patients, the public and health 

Expensive business

THE total cost of testing and treating patients with the disease ran to £725,800, NHS Lothian has revealed.

A breakdown of the costs shows that acute hospital admissions by legionnaires’ patients totalled £126,000 in the general ward and £374,000 in critical care.

The amount spent on distributing public information was £36,900 – £7900 delivering informative leaflets and £29,000 on the NHS 24 helpline.

Staffing costs for primary and secondary care at Lothian hospitals ran to £50,300 and £61,800 respectively.

Increased prescribing costs were £4800 (secondary care) and £2600 (primary care).

Staff costs in the laboratory were £4500 and £26,000 to man testing kits. Staffing and resources for public health equalled £8000.

The bill for further public health investigations came to £38,200.

An NHS source said the breakdown provides an interesting snapshot of what it takes to control a major outbreak of a killer disease.

He said: “For the first time we’ve got a black and white breakdown of what it actually took to treat, inform and bring under control this awful episode. Not surprisingly the cost of treating patients took the vast majority of resources. But what cost a life? The important thing now is to ensure this can’t happen again.”