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1 dead, 15 critically ill after Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Scotland

NBC News partner ITV News reports on the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Scotland.

LONDON -- One man has died and 15 other people were listed in critical condition on Wednesday following an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Edinburgh, Scotland. Authorities believe the disease may have been spread by industrial cooling towers, potentially including some at a whisky distillery.

Public health officials were investigating a further 15 suspected cases of the disease and say more cases could emerge in the coming days.


The victim was a man aged in his 50s, who had underlying health problems, while 13 men and two women aged between 33 and 74 were in critical condition, according to The Scotsman newspaper.

The source of the outbreak is still being investigated.

The disease is contracted by breathing in small droplets of contaminated water, and is often traced to artificial water systems such as air conditioning units or cooling towers.

All the cases so far are linked to the Gorgie, Saughton and Dalry areas in the south-west of the city. Britain’s Sky News reported that samples have been taken from 16 cooling towers at four industrial sites in those areas. However, it will be days before any firm link can be established.

Shortbread cookie link?
Sky News said one of the cooling towers being investigated was at a Scotch whisky plant while another was a shortbread cookie factory. There is no evidence either site is linked to the outbreak.

The first case was identified on May 28. Sky News said health officials believe infected droplets may have been in the air on May 20 when thousands gathered to watch a victory parade by local soccer team Heart of Midlothian. The club won the Scottish Cup the previous day.

The disease is named after its first recognized outbreak, which occurred among people attending a state convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia in 1976. That remains the world’s deadliest case, with 34 victims, and was traced to a hotel air conditioning system cooling tower.

According to the World Health Organization website, Legionnaires' disease is not contagious and can take up to two weeks to develop.

Symptoms include mild headaches and muscle pain, escalating to a high fever, persistent cough and sometimes vomiting, diarrhea and confusion.

Read more on this story from Britain's ITV News

It is treatable in the majority cases, but can be fatal in those with weakened immune systems or underlying health problems such as poor lungs.

'Very, very severe'
Professor Hugh Pennington, one of the world's leading bacteriology experts, told ITV News: “Essentially it is a preventable disease. Industrial water cooling towers are quite a common source of the bug. The bug lives in warm, fresh water. Basically what should be done is disinfectant should be put in the water to basically stop the bug growing. Well, clearly that hasn't happened and the aerosol of water that comes out of these cooling towers contains the bug, people breathe it in and then they get Legionnaires' disease which is essentially a very, very severe pneumonia.

"It particularly affects people who already have weakened lungs through previous disease or immune-suppressed or elderly, so because it's aerosol it can spread on the wind and that's one of the reasons why it's quite difficult to track down a particular source."

ITV News is the British partner of NBC News.

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