THE first victim of Scotland’s worst single outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease died within hours of being admitted to hospital, The Scotsman has learned.
• 21 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease confirmed, with another 19 suspected
• Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said cooling towers in south-west Edinburgh may be to blame
• Some of the infected attended Scottish Cup final between Hibernian and Hearts
• Most reported cases are male, and all range in ages from mid 30s to late 80s
• One man has died as a result of outbreak
Robert Air, 56, a father of two, is understood to have contracted the illness while working as a builder in the area at the centre of the outbreak in south-west Edinburgh. He died on Tuesday at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Health officials have revealed that a further eight people are now being treated for the disease, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 21. Twelve patients remain critically ill, while a further 19 suspected cases are being treated in hospital.
On Wednesday night, public health officials warned that the outbreak, which began last Thursday, is likely to escalate in the coming days with numbers affected expected to rise. Scotland’s leading bacteriologist, Professor Hugh Pennington, said the outbreak should never have happened in modern-day Edinburgh, arguing the disease must have spread as a result of poorly maintained water systems which could easily have been avoided.
“This is not an act of God, this is a failure of maintenance by someone and simply should not happen,” he said.
His comments came as health officials revealed they are still waiting for test results which they hope will the source of the outbreak. Investigations centre on 16 cooling towers, which could harbour contaminated water droplets based at four sites run by the North British Distillery, pharmaceutical firm MacFarlan Smith, Aegon Insurance and Burton’s Foods.
Meanwhile, Linlithgow-based firm, Albagaia, has claimed it can offer the world’s fastest detection test for legionella bacteria in just 25 minutes, but health officials have ruled out its use, insisting that the test is not sophisticated enough to identify the bug in the current outbreak.
Mr Air’s brother, Ronald, said that the father of two had been fit and healthy before suddenly falling ill.
Speaking to The Scotsman from the family home near Duddingston, Edinburgh, Mr Air said: “I spoke to Bert and he told me he was lying in front of the fire shivering and shivering and trying to get himself together. I told him to get the doctor out.
“It was all over in 24 hours. It was too quick. I’m devastated.
“I keep thinking if he had gone to hospital sooner could something have been done?”
Mr Air said his brother, George, broke the news to him that their brother had died in hospital on Tuesday, just hours after he was admitted as an emergency patient.
The father-of-two’s death came at the same time his mother, Hannah, 83, was recovering from a recent fall in another Edinburgh hospital.
He said: “When my brother came to tell me there was bad news I thought it was about my mother. I’m still struggling to believe this has happened.”
Mr Air, who lived in the Seafield area of Edinburgh, had been working as a builder in Gorgie, at the heart of the affected zone, in recent weeks.
His employer, J Smart & company, said he had been working down a lift shaft in south-west Edinburgh last week. They said he went into the ERI on Tuesday where he passed away just a few hours later.
The company said he had worked for them since August 2011 and said his colleagues were still in “total shock” over his death.
Mr Air’s brother described him as “a happy-go-lucky person” who had worked for several different building firms. He leaves behind a partner, Rena, and two children, Robert, 35, and Kelly, 29, as well as three brothers and a sister.
He said: “He always got on with people wherever he worked. That was the sort of person he was. A nicer man you couldn’t meet.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Lothian refused to confirm Mr Air’s details on Wednesday night, but did say the man who died in the latest outbreak had “underlying health conditions”.
The wife of another victim of the latest outbreak said that her husband was initially sent home from a doctor’s surgery with tablets for an upset stomach.
Rick Gibb, a chartered surveyor, is confirmed as having the disease and remains critically ill in hospital.
His wife Margaret, 61, said he was admitted to the ERI the day after being given the tablets by his GP. She said: “If you can’t breathe there is something wrong with you and it beggars belief he was sent home.
“The doctors now say he has Legionnaires’ disease, pneumonia and an infection in both lungs. I thought he was a goner, he was absolutely ashen. I thought I’d come home from the hospital a widow.”
Experts have warned that people do not have to live or work in the affected areas to have caught the disease, which is contracted from inhaling contaminated water droplets. It is not contagious.
Health experts have said that the outbreak might not reach its peak until the weekend as it can take up to a fortnight for symptoms of the disease to show.
Symptoms include mild headaches and muscle pain, which can develop into high fever, a persistent cough and sometimes vomiting, diarrhoea and confusion.
Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon described the outbreak as “the most significant in Scotland for a long, long time”.
She said: “Given the incubation period for Legionnaires’ disease, we would expect to see further cases emerge over the next few days. This is a significant outbreak and it’s the cause of understandable concern.”
She reassured the public the risk of contracting the illness remained “low” and said that health agencies were working together to ensure everything was being done to bring the outbreak under control. She confirmed that NHS Lothian had brought in additional public health staff to ensure as much information about the behaviours, patterns and the recent histories of patients with the illness was being gathered and analysed.
She also said the Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) had been activated, which she said was normal practice when dealing with a complex health outbreak in one health board area.
Ms Sturgeon said: “What we can say is no link has been identified between these patients other than a general association with the affected area in the south-west of Edinburgh. It’s important to stress Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious. It cannot be passed from person to person and cannot be contracted from drinking water.”
NHS Lothian revealed it had prepared an information leaflet which will be delivered to homes and businesses today in the areas of the city at risk.
It advises people of the symptoms of the illness and advice on what to do if anyone thinks they might have contracted it. GPs in the city have also been provided with information to help them spot the signs of infection.
The first case in the current outbreak was identified last Thursday as a person living in south-west Edinburgh.
NHS Lothian first announced the outbreak on Sunday when four cases were confirmed, with another four suspected cases being treated in hospital.
The Scottish Conservatives yesterday criticised both NHS Lothian and the Scottish Government for failing to keep the public adequately informed on the outbreak.
The party’s health spokesman, Jackson Carlaw, said: “While cooling towers in the south-west of the city have been identified as a possible source, no information has been given on who the people are who have contracted the potentially fatal illness, or why they were affected.
“This is a serious situation and, as the numbers show, there clearly is a risk factor. The public need to know who has been affected and why. That is the only way they can make their own informed choice on what to do.”
• A dedicated NHS helpline has been set up for anyone concerned, 0800 0858 531.