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Scots investigate Legionnaires’ outbreak

EDINBURGH - Health officials are trying to pinpoint the source of the worst outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Scotland since the early 1980s as the number of people infected continues to climb.

Sixteen cooling towers at four sites in southwest Edinburgh are the focus of the investigation. There are now 24 confirmed and 37 suspected cases of the disease in the Scottish capital, with 12 people in intensive care in the hospital, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said Thursday. A 56-year-old man died this week while undergoing treatment.

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“The key message is that the risk to public health is low. Nevertheless there are a significant number of cases,’’ Sturgeon told Parliament. “All appropriate action is being taken to minimize the risk of further infection.’’

The airborne bacteria linked to Legionnaires’ are contracted by inhaling small drops of contaminated water, and cases often involve cooling vents in air conditioning and heating systems in buildings or showers at places such as public swimming pools. The worst incident in Britain in recent years was at a leisure facility in Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England in 2002, when seven people died and 180 people were infected, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

The 16 towers were cleaned with chemicals Sunday and Monday and more tests are taking place while the source still remains uncertain, Sturgeon said. It may not ever be possible to conclude “beyond reasonable doubt’’ where the outbreak came from, she reiterated at a press conference Thursday.

While more people are being reported as infected as the outbreak unfolds, fewer are going into intensive care.

NHS Lothian, the public health authority for the Edinburgh area, dealt with eight more cases Wednesday than on Tuesday. Most of the cases involve men over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions, officials said. There was an increase of three confirmed cases overnight.

Legionnaires’ disease cannot be passed from person to person, officials said. The disease initially causes flu-like symptoms such as high fever and muscle pain. Once the bacteria infect the lungs, they can cause a persistent cough and intestinal problems leading to diarrhea and nausea.

It’s treated with antibiotics and two of the people who were in serious condition have since been discharged, Sturgeon said Thursday.

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