Two in intensive care after legionella outbreak linked to compost

Two gardeners are fighting for their lives in intensive care after four people were taken to hospital suffering from a strain of legionella.

NHS Lothian is currently investigating four cases of legionella longbeachae linked to gardening compost.

Two patients are currently being treated in intensive care in hospital while the other two have been discharged from hospital.

The four cases, who are all described as keen gardeners, in Lothian are aged between 62 and 84.

Dr Richard Othieno, consultant in public health and chair of the incident management team at NHS Lothian said: “This type of legionella is quite rare in that unlike other strains it has never been identified in man-made water systems, like cooling towers.

“We are working with experts to trace the source of the infection and samples of the compost have been sent for testing.

“We know that each of the four cases are keen gardeners and had purchased different products containing compost prior to acquiring the infection.

“Gardening is a healthy hobby but there are risks and it is important that people take some simple precautions when working in their garden or with gardening products.

“I would like to add further reassurance that the risk to the wider public is low.”

The longbeachae strain of legionella is thought to have arrived in Scotland in the last five years. No other part of the UK has so far been affected.

The bacterium is well known in Australia and New Zealand, where bags of potting compost carry warning labels. Most of those who take ill are aged over 50.

The health board said there was no link between the current cases and the outbreak which killed four people in the south-west of the capital last year.

Almost 100 people were infected during the outbreak, which was thought to have been linked to cooling towers in Edinburgh but it was later discovered this was not the case.

Legionella bacteria causes Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac fever, which are contracted by inhaling infected moisture. Symptoms include headaches, diarrhoea or a dry cough, followed by pneumonia.

Most people recover from the disease after they are given antibiotics but those with underlying medical problems are more vulnerable to the effects.

The exact way in which the infection is passed from compost to people is not currently known but is assumed to be through breathing in very small dust particles or drops of contaminated water. It is not transmitted from person to person.

NHS Lothian and Borders has issued information to the public on garden compost.

They advise people to:

read and follow any manufacturers’ instructions on the bag;

open any compost or potting mix bags carefully using a blade;

wear gloves when handling compost; keep the door open in greenhouses or sheds when potting-up plants or filling hanging baskets;

wear a mask if the air is dusty, particularly indoors;

wash hands immediately after using compost.

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