The first article in a two-part series investigates the truth surrounding a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak in a Pittsburgh VA.


(via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): Four people had been infected with Legionnaires’ disease. That’s all the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew when the the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System requested help from the federal agency on Nov. 1, 2012.

It would be another three months before the CDC revealed the infections were part of a major outbreak at the VA hospital in Oakland between July 2011 and December 2012 that led to the deaths of five veterans — a sixth death would be identified later — and the serious illness of 16 others.

But the instant a top CDC official, Cynthia Whitney, saw where the request was coming from, she fired off an email.

“Wait a second. … Isn’t this Victor Yu’s/Janet Stout’s former VA hospital?” she wrote in the email to CDC colleagues in Atlanta.

Dr. Yu and Ms. Stout, both of Pittsburgh, are two of the world’s leading experts on Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia that is deadly to elderly and immunosuppressed people. Working as a team at the VA for 26 years, the two made significant discoveries about Legionella, the bacteria that causes the disease, particularly that it is spread through water systems. But they were pushed out of the VA in 2006 in what a Congressional committee later found was a series of unfounded allegations by VA management.

But the emails also show that the CDC commenced the investigation with the intent to condemn the copper-silver system that the VA and many other hospitals have long considered the gold standard for prevention of Legionnaires’. Rather than finding fault with the people who maintained and oversaw the system — as a separate VA Office of Inspector General investigation found — the CDC convinced the VA to switch to a chlorine disinfection system the CDC had long favored.

The emails of Dr. Whitney and seven of her CDC colleagues revealed personal biases against Dr. Yu and Ms. Stout, as well as copper-silver systems, which discharge minute amounts of copper and silver ions into water to kill Legionella. While personal bias itself does not always directly affect the related scientific research, the CDC emails show that in this case, these biases may have played a role in how and what information the CDC chose to present on its investigation, first, in a 2013 report to Congress, and later, in a 2015 article in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Click here to read the full article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.