FLINT -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discovered the first genetic links between city water and patients diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County - something researchers have sought throughout the Flint water crisis.
But instead of closing the book on what caused the outbreak that killed 12 people in 2014 and 2015, the scientific matches instead raise new questions about whether Flint's water system was the source of the outbreak.
Molecular testing by the CDC in late 2016 established the connection between a water sample taken from McLaren-Flint hospital and three sputum samples from patients who were diagnosed with Legionnaires', officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told The Flint Journal.
DHHS learned of a genetic match between the water and Legionnaires' patients last month, and days later, notified McLaren and the Genesee County Health Department that each may be required to turn over additional water samples and other records to the state.
But while the state has focused on McLaren since the genetic links were found, other experts say the three matches, including one victim who was never a patient at McLaren, suggest that Legionella thrived throughout the Flint water system, making it the real culprit in Legionnaires' deaths and illnesses in 2014 and 2015.
Seventy-eight people in the county contracted the disease during those two years, during parts of which the city used the Flint River as its source of water without treating it to make it less corrosive to lead pipes and plumbing.
Amy Pruden, a Virginia Tech university professor and one of five authors of a July 2016 peer-reviewed study on Legionella in Flint water, said the three genetic matches could represent how widespread the bacteria was in city water.
Pruden's study found Legionella levels up to 1,000 times higher than normal tap water in Flint, and said finding a patient whose clinical isolates -- or bacteria -- matched the McLaren water sample without having been hospitalized there "suggests that same strain may have been elsewhere."
Pruden's report on Legionella and Flint last year studied both single-story homes and businesses in Flint and Flint Township and at Hurley Medical Center and McLaren, both of which are located in areas of the city where water is more likely to be stagnant.
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