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Legionella bacteria at Landstuhl military hospital closes areas; decontamination to begin Friday

Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. (U.S. Army)

The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was found in two areas of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, prompting officials to order decontamination of the hospital’s water system.

The hospital findings come a week after the Army announced it had to decontaminate some 20 housing units at Baumholder, a base about 35 miles away, after officials found high levels of the water-borne Legionella bacteria.

Inspectors tested LRMC on Feb. 23 and notified the hospital Tuesday of elevated levels of Legionella bacteria, hospital spokeswoman Stacy Sanning said.

The hospital, which treats both locally based servicemembers and those medically evacuated from combat zones, immediately closed the affected areas and started planning the decontamination process.

It was unclear Thursday exactly which areas were affected, though a hospital message did say the areas did include showers.

Showering in water with high levels of Legionella is considered risky because the bacteria can only be transmitted by inhaling water vapor. Water with the bacteria is still regarded as safe to drink.

Starting Friday afternoon, pipes in the two affected areas will be flushed out with water at a temperature of 167 degrees Fahrenheit. Water at that temperature can cause burns after one second of exposure, prompting officials to recommend caution to anyone using faucets at the hospital during the cleaning.

After the pipes are flushed, they will be retested for the bacteria, officials said.

In February, the German government began testing U.S. bases for Legionella.

“Although this is the first time testing has been done on U.S. installations in Germany (for Legionella), there have been no cases detected in DoD beneficiaries from a DoD facility in Europe in at least 10 years,” Sanning said in a statement.

While base doctors on Baumholder said that no one at the base has tested positive for Legionnaires’, a severe type of pneumonia, the potential for illness forced soldiers to leave their barracks to shower and left base residents concerned for their safety. Residents in one contaminated family housing unit, building 8024, were given keys to other buildings for showering.

Legionnaires’ disease is characterized by flu-like symptoms that appear within 10 days of exposure to the bacteria. Severe cases lead to hospitalization and 10 percent of cases end in death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Since January 2017, LRMC has tested more than a thousand samples from patients with influenza-like illnesses, fever and respiratory symptoms, similar to what would be seen in Legionnaires Disease,” Sanning said. “None of these samples has been positive for Legionella.”

The disease was identified in 1976 when 130 people were hospitalized and 25 died after attending an American Legion conference in Philadelphia. Legionella bacteria was later discovered in the hotel’s air conditioning system.

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