All concerns of Ebola evaporated over the weekend as Vila Franca de Xira was plunged into the worst legionella outbreak in Portugal’s living memory.
In the space of 24 hours four people were reported dead and another suspected of having died from the deadly bacteria – and the number of people arriving in casualty departments complaining of symptoms rose exponentially.
On Friday, 33 were hospitalised, on Saturday that number had risen to 90 and on Sunday papers were variously reporting numbers of 160-180 affected.
As swimming pools and refrigeration towers of factories in the area were shut down, director general of health Francisco George revealed the outbreak could be at its peak.
Talking to RTP news this (Monday) morning he said: “From the first day to the next, the numbers (of people affected) tripled, then on the third day they doubled.
“What I am trying to say is that we could be near the peak of this process.”
He also reassured rising panic by saying “there are thousands of people exposed to this risk, but only a few will get sick”.
As Francisco George gave his update, prevention measures were going ahead full steam. According to Jornal de Notícias, these include beefing up the quantity of chlorine in mains water supplies as a way of eliminating the legionella bacteria.
Meantime, local people were taking every safety precaution they could think of, including not taking showers or baths and even ironing clothes wearing masks.
Health authorities opted against closing schools in the area because legionella “as a rule does not affect children and young people under the age of 20”, informed JN.
Talking to the press on Sunday night, health minister Paulo Macedo said the outbreak was “of great dimension in European and global terms” and that the source had still not been identified, though authorities were working on the assumption that it could be from the refrigeration towers of large factories in the area, or it could have originated within the water supply.
Analysis is ongoing, he said, but nothing will be known conclusively before cultures are grown from samples taken, and this could take anything from five to 10 days.
Thus, the authorities are working on prevention, preparing hospitals to take in any overspill in terms of the rising number of patients and even considering alerting the military.
What is legionella?
It is the bacteria responsible for the disease dubbed Legionaire’s Disease (due to the fact that it worst affects people over the age of 50, who are physically debilitated). Symptoms are those of severe pneumonia. The bacterium is not airbone nor can it be transmitted from person-to-person but it can be contracted by inhalation of infected water/soil – and this is what has sowed the seeds of panic among local people. As they do not yet know the source, they don’t know where it is unsafe to breathe.
According to Wikipedia, legionella can be found in central air conditioning systems in office buildings, hotels and hospitals; cooling towers in industrial cooling systems, evaporative coolers, nebulizers, humidifiers, whirlpool spas, water heating systems, showers, windshield washers, fountains, room-air humidifiers, ice-making machines and grocery misting systems.
As one of the current preventative measures, Vila Franca da Xira’s fountains and irrigations systems have already been disconnected.