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Home Eurosurveillance Edition  2012: Volume 17/ Issue 28 Article 2
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Eurosurveillance, Volume 17, Issue 28, 12 July 2012
Rapid communications
Public health response to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, June 2012
  1. National Health Service, Lothian, Directorate of Public Health and Health Policy, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  2. Health Protection Scotland, National Health Service, National Services Scotland, Glasgow, United Kingdom
  3. The members of the team are listed at the end of the article

Citation style for this article: McCormick D, Thorn S, Milne D, Evans C, Stevenson J, Llano M, Donaghy M, on behalf of the Incident Management Team. Public health response to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, June 2012. Euro Surveill. 2012;17(28):pii=20216. Available online:
Date of submission: 10 July 2012

We report an outbreak comprising 50 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2012. In addition, there were 49 suspected cases. Epidemiological evidence suggests that a common outdoor airborne exposure occurred over south-west Edinburgh. This probably emanated from cooling towers in the north-east of the affected area, although not yet clearly linked by scientific evidence. The co-ordinated public health, environmental and clinical response helped prevent ongoing exposure and mitigated associated mortality and morbidity.

In Scotland 15 to 40 cases of Legionnaires’ disease occur annually, with approximately half travel-associated [1]. On 31 May 2012, a single case of Legionnaires’ disease was reported and investigated in Edinburgh. After further notifications on 2 and 3 June, the number of reported cases of Legionella pneumophila infection in Lothian was four confirmed and four suspected. An incident management team (IMT) was convened on 3 June, in line with the Scottish Government framework for managing public health incidents [2].

During June 2012 the IMT met twelve times. The Scottish Government established their Resilience Room, a coordination facility activated in cases of crisis, on 5 June following an increase in cases. A helpline was established via NHS 24 ( on 6 June and regular updates sent to clinicians and information leaflets distributed to affected areas of Edinburgh from 7 June onwards. The Chair of the IMT provided five television, radio and newspaper interviews on 6 June and twenty in total over the following four weeks.

Epidemiological investigation

Mapping of cases (Figure 1) indicated that all were resident in or linked to south-west Edinburgh. Case definitions were based on European Union guidelines [3]. A confirmed case was defined as an individual with community-acquired pneumonia, microbiologically confirmed Legionella pneumophila, disease onset from 14 May 2012, based on the first case being notified 31 May and taking into account the incubation period, and with links to south-west Edinburgh. Based on clustering of cases, location of cooling towers and the prevailing wind, the IMT hypothesised that the most likely source of infection was the cooling towers to the north-east of the area. Immediate action was taken to sample and disinfect potential sources under the Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008 [4], implement active case finding and inform public health agencies across the United Kingdom (UK). The public were informed of symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease on 3 and 4 June and advised to contact primary care services if unwell. Further epidemiological investigations were undertaken by the Lothian public health team and Health Protection Scotland. All cases were interviewed after notification to obtain ‘travel diaries’ for 2 weeks prior to onset of symptoms and ascertain place of residence and work. Descriptive epidemiology determined dates of onset of illness, disease status and age, sex and spatial distribution. Wind conditions were modelled between 14 May and 5 June and ‘travel diaries’ analysed to determine the association between cases and likely exposure.

Figure 1. Confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease by place of residence, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, as of 1 July 2012 (n=50) 


Environmental and microbiological investigations

All cooling towers are required by law to be registered with the local authority [5] and management of water-associated Legionella risks is measured against the standards in the approved code of practice [6]. In addition to the four sites with cooling towers identified on day one of the outbreak (see Figure 1), the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) [7] identified a further 60 sites including cooling towers, sprinkler systems and industrial washing facilities. These sites were assessed for risk based on their location and nature, and visited by staff from the CEC and the HSE. Where appropriate, water samples were taken and any potential sources disinfected. Samples were tested for Legionella species by the CEC Scientific Services, the National Reference Laboratory and the Health Protection Agency with the intention to match any environmental isolates with human isolates.


As of 1 July 2012, 50 confirmed cases have been identified. (see Figure 1) The average age was 56 years (range: 32–85 years), 72% were male and with two deaths amongst those confirmed to have Legionnaires’ disease the mortality rate is 4.25%. A third death in a suspected case has also been reported. The confirmed cases were typical of Legionnaires’ disease, predominantly males, smokers, aged over 50 years and with underlying health problems. There were also 49 suspected cases. Of the confirmed and the 49 suspected cases, 19 patients have received treatment in critical care and 52 patients on general wards. In addition, a large number of symptomatic individuals were assessed in the community.

The first date of onset was reported as 17 May. The epidemic curve of confirmed cases (Figure 2) shows a peak date of onset on 28 May. The peak in reporting was on 5 June. This pattern may reflect the combination of incubation period, increased case finding and increased public awareness.

Figure 2. Confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease by onset date, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 17 May–1 July 2012 (n=50)


The response from all clinical services was exceptional. Figure 3 shows the number of calls received by the NHS 24 helpline. Many of these callers would have been directed to consultations of general practitioners. The peak in demand on 7 and 8 June coincides with the first day the information leaflets were distributed to the public.

Figure 3. Calls to the NHS 24 helpline, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 6–23 June 2012 (n=1,003)

Epidemiological and meteorological evidence suggests that a common outdoor airborne exposure occurred over south-west Edinburgh, most probably emanating from the cluster of cooling towers in the north-east of the affected area between 23 May and 6 June 2012.

Microbiological results from 50 cases showed the presence of Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1. An additional 1,444 urine samples tested negative, as well as 557 sputum samples (some patients submitted both samples). After extensive environmental testing there is, as of 1 July, no current microbiological evidence to confirm the presence of Legionella pneumophila in any of the samples taken from potential sources. However, voluntary closure of cooling towers was attained from 7 June and since then eight improvement notices have been served to companies in the area by the HSE and CEC under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act [8]. There is an ongoing joint investigation by Lothian and Borders Police and the HSE into the three deaths, with the HSE also investigating compliance with legal standards.


The outbreak reported in Lothian is the largest in Scotland to date. In the last ten years, significant community outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease associated with cooling towers have occurred in the UK and elsewhere in Europe [9]. Other outdoor sources include industrial air scrubbers (Norway) [10], decorative fountains (Wisconsin) [11] and hot water systems (Denmark) [12]. The largest recorded European outbreak was in Murcia, Spain (449 cases) [13] and the largest in England was Barrow in Furness (185 cases) [14].

The current outbreak in Edinburgh occurred in a densely populated area of the capital city and the cluster of cases was well demarcated. This may be due to population density, the north-easterly wind and the topography as the area (Figure 1) is built up in a valley creating ‘urban canyons’ which can channel air flow. A significant proportion of Edinburgh’s population may have been exposed to the plume because a main route from the city centre towards the two major motorways and the airport goes through the affected area.

Whilst expected mortality is often in excess of 10%, the low mortality observed (4.3% in the confirmed cases) may suggest that the timing and quality of care plus the proactive communication strategy may have mitigated the impact. The clustering of the dates of onset indicates a point source exposure which has now stopped and suggests that the potential sources were correctly identified and effectively treated at the beginning of the outbreak. Ongoing epidemiological investigations include sero-prevalence and case–control studies. The aim is to assess the extent and gradient of disease in the community, and the characteristics of those who developed Legionellosis.

Members of the Incident Management Team:
Duncan McCormick, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian; Simone Thorn, Lead Health Protection Nurse Specialist, NHS Lothian; Colin Sibbald, Food Health and Safety Manager, City of Edinburgh Council; Andy Campbell, Food Health and Safety Officer, City of Edinburgh Council; Robbie Beattie, Scientific and Environmental Services Manager, City of Edinburgh Council; Stuart Wilson, Director of Communications, NHS Lothian; John Healy Team Leader, FOD SG Occupational Hygiene Team, Health and Safety Executive; Alistair McNab, Head of Operations (Scotland) Field Operations Directorate, Health and Safety Executive; Garry Stimpson, HM Principal Inspector of Health and Safety, Health and Safety Executive; Martin Donaghy, Medical Director, Health Protection Scotland; Alison Potts, Epidemiologist, Health Protection Scotland; Alison Smith-Palmer, Epidemiologist, Health Protection Scotland; Lynn Cree, Environmental Health Adviser, Health Protection Scotland; Jim McMenamin Consultant Epidemiologist, Health Protection Scotland; Michael Gillies, Clinical Director of Critical Care, NHS Lothian; Sian Tucker Acting Clinical Director, Lothian Unscheduled Care Service, NHS Lothian; Carol Harris, Communications Manager, NHS Lothian; Mary Hanson, Consultant Microbiologist, NHS Lothian; Johnathon Mills, Specialty Registrar, Medical Microbiology, NHS Lothian; Jane Lindsay, Reference Laboratory, Glasgow; Giles Edwards, Reference Laboratory, Glasgow;
Alison McCallum, Director of Public Health and Health Policy, NHS Lothian; Richard Othieno, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian; Sue Payne, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian; Christine Evans, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian; Janet Stevenson, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian; Dona Milne, Specialist in Public Health, NHS Lothian; Louise Wellington, Health Protection Nurse, NHS Lothian; Steve Harvey, Emergency Planning Officer, NHS Lothian; Jennifer Irvine, PA in Public Health, NHS Lothian.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of all members of the Incident Management Team; NHS Lothian’s Directorate of Public Health and Health Policy; NHS Lothian’s Communications team; NHS Lothian Medical Microbiology services; Lothian Acute hospital services, especially respiratory and critical care; Lothian Unscheduled Primary care services and General Practitioners in the affected area; Jim Cowan, GP Lead, Lynn MacDonald, Director of Operations, NHS Lothian, Lothian Occupational Health; Health Protection Scotland; City of Edinburgh Council Environmental Health and Scientific Services; Health and Safety Executive; Scottish Legionella Reference Laboratory; Health Protection Agency; Meteorological Office; Scottish Government Health Department. Maps produced by Mette Tranter, Lothian HIU, Directorate of Public Health and Health Policy.

  1. Health Protection Scotland (HPS). Legionellosis in Scotland in 2009 and 2010. HPS Weekly Report 2011;45(42). Available from:
  2. Scottish Government. Management of Public Health Incidents. Guidance on Roles and Responsibilities of NHS-led Incident Management Teams. Edinburgh: Scottish Government; 2011. Available from:
  3. Health Protection Scotland (HPS). Health Protection Network. Guideline on the Management of Legionella Incidents, Outbreaks and Clusters in the Community. Glasgow: HPS; 2009. Available from:
  4. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). The National Archives. The Notification of Cooling Towers and Evaporative Condensers Regulations 1992 No 2225. London: HMSO; 1992. Available from:
  5. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). The National Archives.The Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008. Edinburgh: HMSO; 2008. Available from:
  6. Health and Safety Executive (HSE).. Legionnaires’ Disease. The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems. Approved Code of Practice.and guidance. London: HSE; 2000. Available from:
  7. Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Operative Circular OC 255/12. Control of Legionella: investigation of outbreaks (and single cases) of legionellosis from water systems incorporating cooling towers and evaporative condensers. London: HSE; 2001 rev. 2011. Available from:
  8. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). The National Archives. Health and Safety at Work etc. 1974. London: HMSO; 1974. Available from:
  9. Joseph CA, Ricketts KD, on behalf of the European Working Group for Legionella Infections. Legionnaires disease in Europe 2007–2008. Euro Surveill. 2010;15(8): pii=19493. Available from:
  10. Nygård K, Werner-Johansen Ø, Rønsen S, Caugant DA, Simonsen Ø, Kanestrøm A, et al., An outbreak of legionnaires disease caused by long-distance spread from an industrial air scrubber in Sarpsborg, Norway. Clin Infec Dis 2008; 46 (1):61-9.
  11. Haupt TE, Heffernan RT, Kazmierczak JJ, Nehls-Lowe H, Rheineck B,  Powell C, et al. An outbreak of legionnaires disease associated with a decorative water wall fountain in a hospital. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2012;33(2):185-91   
  12. Krøjgaard LH, Krogfelt KA, Albrechtsen HJ, Uldum SA. Cluster of Legionnaires’ disease in a newly built block of flats, Denmark, December 2008 – January 2009. Euro Surveill. 2011;16(1):pii=19759. Available online:
  13. García-Fulgueiras A, Navarro C, Fenoll D, García J, González-Diego P, Jiménez-BuñualesT, et al. Legionnaires’ Disease Outbreak in Murcia, Spain. Emerg Infect Dis. 2003;9(8) Available from:
  14. Telford D, Partridge S, Cumming I, Smith A, Calvert, N. The Legionnaires’outbreak in Barrow-in Furness, summer 2002. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2006:60(6):464-6 


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