Flint's Legionnaires' outbreak likely killed more people than reported, says expert

The death toll attributed to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires' outbreak in Flint, Mich., may exceed the 12 deaths currently ascribed to it, according to Marcus Zervos, MD, an infectious disease physician at Detroit's Henry Ford Health System.

Dr. Zervos, who is also the co-principal investigator of Detroit-based Wayne State University's study of Flint's water contamination crisis, testified Thursday in the preliminary hearing of Michigan HHS Director Nick Lyon. Mr. Lyon faces  one count of involuntary manslaughter for his alleged role in interfering with state-funded research linking Flint River water to the Legionnaires' outbreak.

For a death to be directly attributed to Legionnaires' — a virulent form of pneumonia — an individual with the illness must die in the hospital or within 30 days of discharge, Dr. Zervos explained during his testimony. He gave the hypothetical example of a patient contracting Legionella bacteria while in a hospital, but dying six months later of heart failure. If the bacteria weakened the heart, a disease specialist could consider the death as being spurred by the infection.

"That's why I say it's likely more than 12 actually died from the outbreak," Dr. Zervos said, according to MLive.

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, including plumbing systems.

Before the Flint water crisis garnered national attention, 92 cases of Legionnaires' disease — including the 12 fatal cases — were confirmed in Genesee County, Mich., from 2014 to 2015.

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