Last month, farmers and horticulturalists were displaying bulbs and cut flowers to 80,000 visitors from around the world to the annual Westfriese Flora show. But somewhere in the complex in Bovenkarspel,40 miles north of Amsterdam, the rare and deadly bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease were lurking. A week ago, people started dying.
Anxiety about Legionnaires' disease has spread across the Netherlands. Bovenkarspel,normally associated with flowers, has become synonymous with catastrophe.
"This was the 66th exhibition. We do it every year and this time it was a calamity of unknown proportions," said Wim Boon, an organiser of the show.
With new deaths and infections reported almost daily, Jan Haanstra, Mayor of Bovenkarspel and chairman of the show, is anxiously awaiting the results of investigations that are trying to trace the source.
Initial speculation pointed to a water fountain or other water decorations at the show, but this has not been confirmed.
On Friday, medical teams widened their investigation to two other events held simultaneously with Westfriese Flora in the same 1930s complex: a household goods exhibition and a consumer products show. None of the 30 employees at the exhibition hall has become infected.
The outbreak prompted the Environment Minister, Jan Pronk, to propose tighter laws on drinking water systems and said inspections of venues for public events would be increased.
Legionnaires' disease first surfaced in 1976 at a convention of the American Legion in Pennsylvania, where 220 of the 4,000 people attending were infected and 34 died.
The bacteria believed to cause the illness are found in soil and thrive in air-conditioning ducts, storage tanks and rivers. Experts say the germ, spread through the air via water droplets, kills one in every six people infected.
The latest episode may hold new clues for doctors studying the disease. In the Netherlands, Louis Timmer, director of Westfriese Gasthuis hospital, said: "We were surprised that the cases were among people of all ages and that those who became ill were not physically weak to begin with."
The hospital is caring for 26 people with the disease, six of whom are in intensive care.
Westfriese Flora is one of more than 100 flower and bulb events held each year in the Netherlands, where tourists, farmers and buyers inspect the goods of a multibillion- dollar industry.
Evelien Engelman, spokeswoman for the Horticulture Product Board, which represents the country's flower industry, said there wereconcerns the outbreak could discourage people from attending future flower shows even if it was found to have come from one of the other exhibitions. (AP)