Legionnaires' disease bacteria found at UTMB

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"We think the risk is phenomenally low. But we are being proactive in patient safety," said Pamela Falk, director of health care epidemiology at UTMB, which is still reopening after being heavily damaged by Hurricane Ike. "This is not going to stop us from accepting patients."

UTMB is still in the middle of testing water samples to determine the level of contamination. The hospital has also hired a consulting firm to perform additional testing.

Legionnaire's, a form of pneumonia, is caused by bacteria that occurs naturally in water.

The bacteria probably formed in water that remained stagnant for weeks in hospital pipes after the hurricane, Falk said.

"It frequently is normally found in water systems," she said. "We wouldn't have been surprised if we found it and we did."

The bacteria is not believed to have spread beyond the hospital and there have been no reports of human infections.

Falk said the only patients at risk for getting the disease are ones with compromised immune systems. With the hospital not fully open yet, the only patients at risk would be premature babies.

Special filters have been installed to clean the water that any infants at the hospital might use, she said.

"We need to be careful and doctors need to watch for pneumonia in their patients," Falk said.

The only way a patient could get the disease is if he or she would inhale fine water particles into their lungs, she said. People not at risk to the disease can still wash their hands, drink the water, or bath in it.

Legionnaire's can be fatal in rare cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. An estimated 8,000 to 18,000 cases occur nationwide each year, and outbreaks aren't uncommon in health care settings.

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