Source of Italy’s legionella outbreak identified: don’t worry, it’s not the water

The source of the legionella bacteria that sickened hundreds of people in northern Italy has been identified as cooling towers, not tap water.

Source of Italy's legionella outbreak identified: don't worry, it's not the water
Contaminated water in cooling towers can be dispersed over several kilometres. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

“I assure all citizens that they can continue to use and drink water from the mains in total serenity,” the health councillor for Lombardy, Giulio Gallera, said on Monday.

Tests detected the bacteria, which causes Legionnaires' diseases and other respiratory illnesses, in nine of 14 cooling towers in the province of Brescia, he said.

Six of 12 samples taken from the River Chiese, which runs from Trentino to Brescia and into Lake Idro, also tested positive.

Authorities are expected to order the cooling towers' owners to conduct an urgent clean-up to prevent any further contamination. Prosecutors have opened an investigation to determine culpability for the outbreak, which is believed to have resulted in at least two deaths.

READ ALSO: Legionella bacteria confirmed in pneumonia patients in northern Italy

In total 405 people in Brescia suffered symptoms of pneumonia in recent weeks, with 42 cases confirmed to have been caused by legionella. Most of those affected were elderly and the majority were men.

The bacteria is transmitted by inhaling drops of contaminated water, which can be dispersed over several kilometres if it escapes from large industrial cooling towers.

New cases had already dropped off by last week, authorities said, leading them to believe that the worst of the outbreak is over. 

Italy has the highest number of cases of legionella bacterium infections in Europe, according to the most recent annual report by the European Centre for Disease Control. The number of detected cases is constantly rising across the continent, with better surveillance, population ageing, increased travel and climate change among the contributing factors.

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever in Italy soar

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP


Italy’s constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Judges on Thursday dismissed legal challenges to Italy's vaccine mandate as "inadmissible” and “unfounded”, as 1.9 million people face fines for refusing the jab.

Italy's constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Judges were asked this week to determine whether or not vaccine mandates introduced by the previous government during the pandemic – which applied to healthcare and school staff as well as over-50s – breached the fundamental rights set out by Italy’s constitution.

Italy became the first country in Europe to make it obligatory for healthcare workers to be vaccinated, ruling in 2021 that they must have the jab or be transferred to other roles or suspended without pay.

The Constitutional Court upheld the law in a ruling published on Thursday, saying it considered the government’s requirement for healthcare personnel to be vaccinated during the pandemic period neither unreasonable nor disproportionate.

Judges ruled other questions around the issue as inadmissible “for procedural reasons”, according to a court statement published on Thursday.

This was the first time the Italian Constitutional Court had ruled on the issue, after several regional courts previously dismissed challenges to the vaccine obligation on constitutional grounds.

A patient being administered a Covid jab.

Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

One Lazio regional administrative court ruled in March 2022 that the question of constitutional compatibility was “manifestly unfounded”.

Such appeals usually centre on the question of whether the vaccine requirement can be justified in order to protect the ‘right to health’ as enshrined in the Italian Constitution.

READ ALSO: Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work

Meanwhile, fines kicked in from Thursday, December 1st, for almost two million people in Italy who were required to get vaccinated under the mandate but refused.

This includes teachers, law enforcement and healthcare workers, and the over 50s, who face fines of 100 euros each under rules introduced in 2021.

Thursday was the deadline to justify non-compliance with the vaccination mandate due to health reasons, such as having contracted Covid during that period.

Italy’s health minister on Friday however appeared to suggest that the new government may choose not to enforce the fines.

“It could cost more for the state to collect the fines” than the resulting income, Health Minister Orazio Schillaci told Radio Rai 1.

He went on to say that it was a matter for the Economy and Finance Ministry, but suggested that the government was drawing up an amendment to the existing law.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

The League, one of the parties which comprises the new hard-right government, is pushing for fines for over-50s to be postponed until June 30th 2023.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had promised a clear break with her predecessor’s health policies, after her Brothers of Italy party railed against the way Mario Draghi’s government handled the pandemic in 2021 when it was in opposition.

At the end of October, shortly after taking office, the new government allowed doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work earlier than planned after being suspended for refusing the Covid vaccine.

There has been uncertainty about the new government’s stance after the deputy health minister in November cast doubt on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, saying he was “not for or against” vaccination.

Italy’s health ministry continues to advise people in at-risk groups to get a booster jab this winter, and this week stressed in social media posts that vaccination against Covid-19 and seasonal flu remained “the most effective way to protect ourselves and our loved ones, especially the elderly and frail”.