A council worker responsible for maintenance at a leisure complex thought to be responsible for the outbreak of legionnaires' disease at Barrow-in-Furness, has been suspended. The technical manager of the Cumbrian port town's Forum 28 centre has been ordered home and told not to speculate on what caused the disease to spread. More than 70 people are now believed to have been infected.
Barrow council could face legal action from victims or their families if the investigation by public health officials finds it failed to look after the air-conditioning unit properly. The plant at the centre of the outbreak is on the roof and the air-conditioning vents into an adjacent alley, where the victims may have been infected.
Tests confirmed yesterday that the water supply at Forum 28 was contaminated with the lethal legionella bacterium. Public health officials said it would take up to a week to establish whether it was the same strain of the disease which has killed an 87-year-old man.
More than 70 people remain in five hospitals across the North-west after contracting the illness, an extreme form of pneumonia which attacks the respiratory system and hampers kidney function. Yesterday doctors said two of the 15 people in intensive care had developed complications and were giving them cause for concern. But health officials said they were "cautiously optimistic" they had seen the worst of the outbreak. They said there appeared to have been a peak in the number of cases reported on 29 July and doctors expected to see cases tailing off.
An assessment of the number of victims has been made more difficult because of the large number of Barrow people on holiday.
Tom Campbell, chief executive of Barrow council said he was co-operating fully with the police and officials from the Health and Safety Executive but could not reveal details about maintenance of the plant.
Mr Campbell said the air-conditioning system was 30 years old and the council always "experienced difficulties" with old equipment. He said it was to be replaced within three years but the council had not been aware of any fault with the system before it was shut down on Thursday. Mr Campbell agreed the system should have been cleaned and checked for bacteria at least once a month but said maintenance records had been given to the police and HSE and the council had been advised not to comment further.
"A man has died and if it were established that in any way an employee for whom I was responsible was negligent I will carry that burden to the grave," he added.
Vicars at churches across the town, as well as at the chapel in Furness General Hospital, prayed for those already ill, for those who may be taken ill and for those caring for them. The rural Dean of Barrow, Canon Peter Mann, said the town was hoping and praying that the outbreak had peaked.
One of the victims, Elaine Kite, 46, said when she became ill she was initially told she had "summer flu" and to take paracetamol. She later developed breathing difficulties and was admitted to hospital where a microbiologist diagnosed legionnaires' disease. Mrs Kite, who has three children, said: "I panicked ... I really thought I was going to die."
Legionnaires' disease, named in 1976 when an outbreak killed 29 people at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, is a form of pneumonia caused by bacteria living in water droplets. Symptoms are flu-like, followed by fever and chills, then a dry cough.
There were fears that the Barrow outbreak could rival one in Stafford in 1985 in which 68 people were infected and 23 died. Previous outbreaks have claimed the lives of up to 20 per cent of those infected.
Last year, more than 200 people contracted the disease in the Spanish city of Murcia, but few died.
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