Legionnaires' victim wants better pipe cleaning in N.S.

As Quebec health officials continue to try to track the source of legionnaires' disease that has infected close to 80 people and killed 13, a Nova Scotia man is lobbying the provincial government to require companies to clean and maintain water and cooling systems that might harbor legionella bacteria.

Tony Dickie, 59, uses a cane to get around his Truro home.

He said he believes he contracted legionnaires' disease two years ago while inspecting some ductwork at the Burnside jail where he worked in security.

"From what I'm told the family was called in the Sunday I went into the hospital and told I wasn't going to make it," he said.

Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia, is one of two distinct illnesses associated with the Legionella genus.

Its milder counterpart, Pontiac fever, is a non-pneumonia flu-like illness that is less common. People affected by the fever usually don’t need treatment and are able to recover within a few days.

Legionnaires' disease, however, varies in its severity and can be fatal. That's why Dickie is lobbying the Nova Scotia government for better cleaning protocols.

No matter how many protocols are put in place, outbreaks can happen. A Halifax study from 20 years ago found a quarter of private homes had the bacteria hiding in pipes.

The study followed a legionnaire's outbreak at Halifax's Victoria General hospital that killed two patients. In the 25 years since, the hospital has resorted to a labour-intensive strategy to protect patients at high risk. Such patients aren't allowed to drink tap water, or draw their own baths and shower.

Lynn Johnson, head of infectious diseases for Capital Health, said for almost a quarter century the hospital has learned to live with the potential threat of a microbe that can lurk in any standing water source, including water fountains, hot tubs, and fountains.

It's only when the bacteria get aerosolized, or in the air, and sucked into the lungs that they can cause problems.

"It's a challenge. You can imagine when you first get up to brush your teeth your first instinct is to go to a sink and not to a bottle of sterile water," she said.

Victoria General first tried increasing the amount of chlorine in the pipes, but that was corrosive to pipes and caused floods. Super heating is another strategy but it poses burn risks to patients and needs to be done for every water tap in the building or the bacteria can regrow.

Now the Halifax hospital uses a different form of chlorine designed to get at the bacteria in biofilms — the guck that acts as protective environment for legionnella.

She said there's only one real fix, tear the old hospital down and build a new one with new pipes.

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