Journal editor said Post-Gazette series led to the change
[EXCERPT FROM THE PITTSBURH POST-GAZETTE; Sean D. Hamill:firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill.]
In a rare move, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has corrected a journal article it authored about its investigation of the 2011 and 2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
The editor of the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal said the correction last month in the 2015 article was the result of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s series in December that revealed that CDC officials involved in the investigation held biases against two Legionnaires’ experts who used to work at the VA, as well as the disinfectant system that the VA had been using to control Legionella.
That bias, the series disclosed, appears to have affected the way the VA not only investigated the outbreak — which sickened 22 veteransleading to the death of six of them — but how it ultimately reported its findings. It blamed the copper-silver ionization disinfectant system for the outbreak instead of the people who managed and maintained it for the VA.
Those findings contradicted a VA Inspector General report in 2013 that found that the outbreak was due to poor management generally and poor maintenance of the copper-silver system specifically — not that the copper-silver system itself had failed. The system is considered the gold-standard in the industry.
“It seems here [the CDC employees] had an agenda with the way they did the article from the beginning,” said Robert Schooley, the journal’s editor and the head of the division of infectious diseases at the University of California at San Diego.
The biases were expressed by CDC officials in emails they sent to each other, which were obtained by the Post-Gazette through a Freedom of Information Act request . . .
. . . In the emails, CDC officials openly discussed their biases against copper-silver systems, as well as two researchers who used to work at the Pittsburgh VA and had long battled the CDC over a variety of issues related to Legionnaires’ disease, including copper-silver systems, which the researchers believe are effective.
In one email, Cynthia Whitney, the head of the CDC’s respiratory disease branch, said that because the outbreak was at the Pittsburgh VA where two Legionnaires’ researchers disliked by some CDC officials had worked, and because there was a copper-silver system in use there, investigating the outbreak would be “poetic justice.”
The two Legionnaires’ experts maligned by CDC officials in their emails, and representatives from the two copper-silver ionization manufacturers that worked with the Pittsburgh VA, all took issue with the journal article and the CDC’s attempt to minimize what it did.
“This is not an honest error,” said Janet Stout, the Legionnaires’ expert who now runs a private laboratory in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood with her colleague, Victor Yu. “The CDC’s 2015 article had an agenda to discredit copper-silver ionization. Now we can see the CDC deliberately misrepresented their lab data only to support their view. They took their whole experiment and cherry-picked data.”
“That really is misconduct,” she said.
Dr. Yu agreed: “When I see an error like that, I believe it was deliberate. They had an experiment that showed it worked, then they said it didn’t.”