CDC Stumbles As Legionnaires’ Deaths Climb

As the death toll rises to 12 in the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in New York City, health officials all over the nation should learn quickly from the mistakes being made there. New York is the latest city to fall victim to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s do-nothing guidelines. They have given public health officials an excuse to ignore a decade of warning signs about Legionnaires’ disease. People are not just dying in New York. This month alone, there have been Legionnaires’ deaths reported in Cleveland, Denver and Detroit, among others. Most cases can be prevented by routinely testing plumbing in buildings, fountains, hot tubs and cooling towers.

Betsy_McCaughey

New York’s proposed solution, announced on Monday, deals with only a small part of the problem — cooling towers. Inspecting and cleaning these towers is being sold to the public as the remedy.

There’s no excuse for the lack of preparedness in the Big Apple over Legionnaires’. The mayor claims the situation is “absolutely unprecedented,” but North America has seen numerous deadly outbreaks, including Toronto in 2005, New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2008, and Chicago in 2012, to name a few.

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Legionnaires’ got its name when an outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976 killed 34 hotel guests. The disease is a type of pneumonia. The deadly bacteria thrives in warm water, and people get sick when they breathe in droplets. The CDC can’t tell us exactly how many people are affected each year, but recent studies indicate Legionnaires has at least tripled since 2000, and as many as 18,000 people are hospitalized with it in a year.

As Legionnaires’ continues to fester across the country, under the media radar, the CDC has adamantly stuck to its position that testing water is unnecessary until after an outbreak. Forget prevention. Never mind the lives already lost.

The nation could do a far better job of preventing future Legionnaire’s deaths if our officials were willing to learn from other countries. The U.K., Holland and other European countries responded to outbreaks decades ago by requiring building owners to periodically test all uses of water, not just cooling towers. You can get Legionnaires’ by taking a shower with contaminated water and breathing in the steam.

Or going to a flower show. In 1999, 188 contracted the disease at a Netherlands garden exposition, and at least 21 died. The country began regular testing of all water systems, and after a decade, found that cooling towers — the focus of Bill de Blasio’s strategy – account for only one out of every five Legionnaires’ cases. The biggest problem areas are hospitals and spas. Here in the U.S., a study in the Pittsburgh area found that 71 percent of hospitals that tested for Legionella bacteria in their water supply found it. The study’s co-author said “If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it.” That’s the problem with only testing cooling towers.

Responding to the growing danger, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers has just updated their model rules for prevention of Legionnaires’. They call for regular testing of water systems, including hotels, large apartment buildings, hospitals and pools. CDC chief Thomas Frieden ought to take a look. Frieden, after all, spent his time as New York City Health Commissioner fighting big sodas and trans fats, and left the city unprepared for Legionnaires.

Frieden has continued to promote the Nanny State at the CDC. But Americans can decide for themselves what to eat and drink. What they need from the nation’s top health agency is public safety and preparedness — precisely the mission the CDC is neglecting. The mission confusion has deadly consequences. Under Frieden’s management the CDC fumbled on its Ebola response, and he’s dropping the ball on Legionnaires’ as well.

Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and author of “Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution.”

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