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Legionella suspected of causing illness that killed 3 and sickened 7 in Argentina, health officials say

An illness that has stricken 10 people in Argentina, killing three, may have been the result of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, health officials said Saturday.

Officials have been trying to determine what was causing the malady that had sickened 10 people linked to a private clinic in the city of San Miguel de Tucumán, officials said in multiple statements.

On Saturday, health officials said Legionella bacteria was identified in tests of four samples — three respiratory and a biopsy from one of the people who died.

“The suspicion is that it is an outbreak of legionella pneumophila,” Dr. Carla Vizzotti, the country’s health minister, said in a statement.

Data is still preliminary and pending final diagnosis, Vizzotti added.

The Legionella bacteria can be transmitted when people breathe in small droplets of water or accidentally swallow water containing the bacteria into the lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia.

The 10 patients include three people who were under observation and receiving treatment and an 81-year-old man who was hospitalized in serious condition, the health ministry for Tucumán Province said.

Three employees at the Luz Médica clinic also contracted the illness: a 40-year-old pharmacy assistant who was hospitalized, a 44-year-old nurse being monitored at home, and a 30-year-old nurse, said Luis Medina Ruiz, the provincial health minister, at a news conference this week.

The three who died had preexisting conditions, or comorbidity, the ministry said. Among the dead was a 70-year-old woman who had gallbladder surgery at the clinic, Ruiz said.

She was at first considered the cluster’s “patient zero,” but her case will undergo further analysis, he said.

Symptoms, which first appeared in six cases related to the facility, developed from Aug. 18 to 23, provincial health officials said. The latest cases included three patients announced Thursday and one — the 81-year-old man — announced Friday.

The World Health Organization’s agency for the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization, said Argentina’s Ministry of Health informed it of the initial cluster of six patients on Tuesday.

PAHO said Thursday that hallmarks of the then-mystery illness include bilateral pneumonia, defined by infection in both lungs, as well as fever, muscle aches, abdominal pain, and difficulty breathing.

Tests for respiratory viruses as well as other viral, bacterial and fungal agents have so far been negative in the first six cases, PAHO said in a statement Thursday.

At a news conference this week with Ruiz and other medical professionals, it was announced that initial testing also appeared to rule out Covid-19, Legionella and hantavirus, which can be spread by rodents.

Additional tests, including those that would find noninfectious, potentially drug-related or toxicity fueled causes, were being conducted at a national laboratory run by the Argentinian government, PAHO said.

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