Flint's Legionnaires' disease outbreak was likely underreported, experts say

Before the Flint, Mich., water crisis garnered national attention, 92 cases of Legionnaires' disease were confirmed in residents Genesee County from 2014 to 2015. Twelve of said cases resulted in death. Now, medical experts are saying the total is likely higher than that, according to Bridge magazine.


In 2014 — the year state officials changed the source of and improperly treated Flint's water supply, resulting in toxic levels of lead contaminating the city's drinking water — 90 people died from pneumonia in Genesee County. In 2015, 87 people died from the illness. Those numbers are both up from the 53 deaths recorded in 2013.

According to Bridge, some medical experts have told the publication at least a portion of the 2014 and 2015 deaths are likely attributable to undiagnosed Legionnaires' disease. However, there is no way to confirm this educated guess because both McLaren-Flint Hospital and the state of Michigan failed to order routine testing for Legionnaires' disease — a more virulent form of pneumonia — among pneumonia patients. The choice to not test for Legionnaires' disease came when both the state and the hospital were aware of the 2014 outbreak.

"The spike in Legionnaires' deaths deserved earlier, complete investigation. Why that did not happen is both confusing to clinicians in Flint and the community," Lawrence Reynolds, MD, a pediatrician who was on Gov. Rick Snyder's Flint Water Advisory Taskforce, told Bridge. "I think this is so wrong, what's happened. The level of dysfunction. Not only is this a public health crisis but a transparency-in-government crisis. This is what happens when you try to run government like a business. This should not happen ever again in the United States."

Dr. Reynolds, the former president and CEO of Mott Children's Health Center in Flint, added that it's very likely more than 12 people died from Legionnaires' disease related to contaminated water in Flint.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released the 2015 pneumonia death information for Genesee County this month after multiple inquiries from Bridge. The numbers were not previously known because the state typically groups these deaths in with deaths from influenza.

Legionnaires' disease is caused by Legionella bacteria. It is not spread via person-to-person contact or by drinking water, but can be contracted by inhaling mist from contaminated water sources, such as cooling misters and plumbing systems.

In October 2016, a research team from Wayne State University in Detroit detected Legionella bacteria in several Flint homes.

More articles on infection control: 
UPMC finds mold at outsourced laundry facility; presents possible link to 5 patient deaths 
7 things to know about norovirus 
Washington mumps outbreak up to 278 cases

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