Legionnaires' disease, a serious type of pneumonia, is a risk in healthcare facilities across the U.S. Unfortunately, the health conditions that cause many people to seek treatment in long-term care facilities and hospitals can also put them at greater risk of getting sick and dying from this lung infection. Legionnaires' disease kills 1 in 4 people who get it from a healthcare facility.
Caused by bacteria called Legionella, it's important to note that most healthy people do not get Legionnaires' disease after exposure to the germ. Those at greater risk of getting sick include people 50 years of age or older, current or former smokers and those with a weakened immune system or a chronic disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Keeping the water supply in healthcare facilities safe is critical to protecting patients from Legionnaires' disease. To get sick, people usually breathe in small droplets of water containing the bacteria. In healthcare facilities, contaminated water droplets can be spread by showerheads and sink faucets, hydrotherapy equipment like jetted therapy baths, medical equipment like respiratory machines, ice machines and cooling towers (parts of large, centralized air conditioning units). Less commonly, people can also get Legionnaires' disease if contaminated water accidentally gets into the lungs while drinking. Legionnaires' disease generally isn't contagious.
Ensuring that patients, visitors and employees at healthcare facilities don't become sick because of where they receive care or work is important. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a toolkit to help building managers and owners develop a water management program that limits the growth and spread of Legionella. This year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that healthcare facilities are expected to develop and adhere to policies and procedures to reduce the risk of Legionella in their water systems. These are just two examples of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' continued efforts to prevent healthcare-associated Legionnaires' disease.