Legionnaires' tests are 80% positive

Eighty of 100 water samples analysed by a Dubai laboratory this year have tested positive for the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - March 18: Dr. Ullrich Wernery, Scientific Director, Central Veterinary Research Lab (CVRL), working on location at the CVRL, in Dubai on March 18, 2008. (Photo by Randi Sokoloff / The Nation)
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DUBAI // Eighty of 100 water samples analysed by a Dubai laboratory this year have tested positive for the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease, scientists said yesterday. Legionella pneumophila is particularly common at this time of year, when the summer heat boosts its ability to grow in air-conditioning systems and in water tanks and fittings.
If the bacterium becomes airborne it can cause a mild respiratory illness known as Pontiac fever, or the more serious Legionnaire's disease. There has been a "big increase in awareness" about the bacterium since The National published an article on the subject in February, said Dr Ulrich Wernery, director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL), the first laboratory in the country authorised to conduct tests. Before that, the laboratory had received only 147 water samples since testing began in 2004.
"The concentration is more or less always high and you always find it with a lot of other bacteria," he said of L. pneumophila. "But even if you have one colony, it is not good. This is a pathogen, it should not be in the water." The samples come from places such as dental clinics, which are required by law to conduct regular tests, and homes where people suspect the bacterium may be causing allergies or colds.
Joe Coleman, owner of Homeinspections, a company in Dubai that decontaminates water systems, has had 40 inquiries since March of this year. Twenty-three samples have tested positive. "It has been a busy six months," he said. Among his clients are the tenants of an 11-bedroom villa on The Palm Jumeirah. Extensive contamination in the property was caused by a crack in the water tank and a rusted paint drum and pipes that had been left inside, probably by construction workers when the villa was built, Mr Coleman said.
The findings led to a lengthy clean-up that began in April and involved 14 tests before the final one, when the bacterium was shown to have been eliminated. "I am just about working on the final bill, it is going to be around Dh60,000," he said. Contamination in high-rise buildings is harder to deal with because if the bacterium is found in one unit, the whole building has to be cleaned. Mr Coleman's team has discovered contamination in three high-rise properties in Dubai - an office tower in Mirdiff, a residential tower in Dubai Marina and another one in the old town - but has so far failed to persuade the properties' owners to foot the clean-up bills. Developers usually contract property management companies to maintain their buildings, and there is little control over the way they operate or what they are responsible for, he said. "It is a total lack of standards by maintenance teams," he said. Barbara Roux, the chief executive of the Dubai-based air-conditioning cleaning company Air Environmental Solutions and an indoor air quality expert with more than 15 years' experience, said she has encountered similar problems. "We have had several cases in hotels in September, March and June, but some owners could not do the treatment because they had no budget," Mrs Roux said. The bacterium was news in February last year, when the BBC cricket commentator and statistician Bill Frindall, 69, died of Legionnaires' disease in the UK following a visit to Dubai. Two other guests at the hotel he stayed in also became ill. Staff said earlier testing, as well as 24 samples taken after the incident from the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, the hotel in question, were clear of the bacterium. Dr Bassam Mahboub, a chest physician and vice chairman of the Emirates Respiratory Society, said it was rare to see patients with Legionnaires' disease. "I have not had any cases recently, not in the past six months at least," he said. However, if an otherwise healthy person shows the symptoms, doctors may attribute them to common flu. "General practitioners know about it but I am not sure they look for it with every patient," Dr Mahboub said. vtodorova@thenational.ae