Nineteen people were tonight being treated for Legionnaires’ disease after what doctors fear could be the UK’s ever biggest outbreak.
Five of the victims of the potentially fatal disease were in intensive care, 11 others were awaiting test results and health officials in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria said they feared up to 100 more could have been infected.
Urgent efforts were under way to establish the source of the disease, which is often spread through the water in air-conditioning systems.
Dr David Telford, medical director of the Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust, said the mortality rate for hospitalised patients suffering from Legionnaires’ disease was in the region of 10 to 15%.
Asked if there would there be 10 to 15 deaths if the projected figure of 100 people were infected, Dr Telford said: “That’s the logical conclusion.”
Dr Nigel Calvert, a consultant in communicable disease control, told reporters at a press conference, said: “This is the largest outbreak I am aware of.”
Dr Calvert, who is in charge of the investigation into the source of the outbreak, said patients were being interviewed in an attempt to determine where they caught the disease.
He said early indications suggested that they had all been within 500 yards of Barrow Town Hall, which is in the centre of the town.
He added that anyone who has visited Barrow since July 1st could have contracted the disease and if they displayed any pneumonia-like symptoms they should contact their GP.
People with the disease were being treated at Furness General Hospital in the town, where the press conference was held.
Dr Frank Atherton, director of public health for Morecambe Bay Primary Care Trust, said: “People could still be exposed to the infection. The source of the infection may not be closed down yet.”
Legionnaires’ disease got its name in 1976 when there was an outbreak of pneumonia among people attending an American Legion Convention in Philadelphia. Twenty nine legionnaires died.
The disease is a form of pneumonia caused by bacteria which live in water droplets.
It breeds in warm, moist conditions and in most major outbreaks the source of infection has been the water in the air-conditioning system in large public buildings.
Young people generally make a full recovery, but elderly, unfit people can die from the illness.
Health officials are preparing to treat as many as a further 100 cases of the disease over the next ten days.
All elective surgery at Furness General Hospital has been cancelled for Monday and Tuesday and other hospitals in Kendal and Lancaster are preparing to help treat as many as 10 new cases a day for the next ten days, said Ian Cumming, chief executive of Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust.
“The disease has an incubation period of between five and ten days. We are looking at something in the region of another 10 people a day for the next ten days.
“We are gearing up to be able to deal with another 100 cases.”
He said the only thing linking the cases so far was that all the patients had been in Barrow town centre recently.
Mr Cumming said he believed the hospitals in the area could cope with the outbreak and urged local residents not to be too alarmed but to see a doctor if they become worried about symptoms.
“People should try not to be concerned – I know that is easier said than done. We believe we can cope with people coming through the doors at Furness General Hospital.
“People should contact their GPs if they have concerns,” he added.
Mr Cumming said some of the patients had initially been diagnosed with pneumonia.
But when numbers with that diagnosis rose significantly above normal levels for the time of year, medical staff became suspicious.
“Over the last few days we have been seeing a number of people presenting at the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia – much more than we would expect to see,” he said.
Test results back this morning showed that some of these patients had Legionnaires’ disease, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Public Health Laboratory Service said there were up to 200 cases of Legionnaires’ disease each year.
Of those in good health who contract the disease between 10% to 15% die.
Provisional figures from the Office of National Statistics show there were 14 deaths from Legionnaires’ disease in 2001.
In October 1998 the disease was found in part of the water supply at Buckingham Palace after routine tests.
Despite the discovery the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stayed at their residence and carried on as normal with state and official duties.
The organisms were removed by flushing out the system.