It's been 14 months since her husband of 58 years died of legionnaires disease, but the grief still rears its head at the most random times.

"I can't believe 14 months later that I can just cry for nothing," the Auckland widow, who declined to be named, told the Herald.

The woman's 80-year-old husband died after contracting legionnaires disease from airborne particles emanating from a spa pool at The Sentinel apartment complex they live in on Auckland's North Shore last year.

"I thought I'd be getting right. I actually had a cry cleaning my teeth [yesterday] morning. It's unbelievable."

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The woman and her husband had been together 58 years. Their wedding anniversary was the day he was admitted to North Shore Hospital with suspected pneumonia.

"In those days you went from your family to get married, so I've never lived alone. I don't find the loneliness the same as the odd sharing of things."

The woman's story comes out as new research led by Professor David Murdoch of University of Otago, Christchurch, has shown the incidence of legionella in New Zealand is higher than first thought.

The study - of reported cases over a 12-month period between May 2015 and May 2016 - showed two-thirds of legionella cases had been wrongly diagnosed as pneumonia.

The research will have worldwide impact, Professor Murdoch says, as the disease, up until now, was known as a rare infection.

"This will stir things up a little bit internationally in terms of not recognising that it's such a common disease."

Seventeen of the country's 20 district health boards took part, giving researchers a catchment of 96 per cent of the country's population.

The study saw researchers take samples from patients of any age with pneumonia from one of the participating 20 hospitals.

The team found legionnaires was present in 150, or 63 per cent, of the 238 reported cases.

This was three times the rate expected based on the number of people diagnosed in the preceding three years. Of the 238 cases, 15 died within 90 days of diagnosis and 38 cases required treatment in an intensive care unit.

Murdoch has had in interest in studying legionnaires since the early 90s before he came up with a more thorough testing method for the Canterbury region, where the disease had previously most regularly been found, in 2010.

Sign at the location of The Sentinel apartment building's spa pool last year after it was found to have been contaminated with legionnella. Photo / File
Sign at the location of The Sentinel apartment building's spa pool last year after it was found to have been contaminated with legionnella. Photo / File

Given its success, he then managed to launch the nationwide study which provided the results, which he wasn't overly surprised by.

"I personally wasn't surprised. I thought it would happen. I didn't know exactly which parts of the country but I anticipated we would find a lot more than we knew."

The highest rate of incidence was in the Bay of Plenty (more than eight cases per 100,00 people), and Hawke's Bay, Waitemata and Canterbury, which all had rates of between six and eight people per 100,000.

"Some of those, like Bay of Plenty and to some extent Hawke's Bay, hadn't picked up that they had the high rate. That was because they had been tested as pneumonia but weren't having the test for legionnaires.

"They weren't having the test for legionnaires disease and therefore they were just called pneumonia and treated in a very broad way that would make sure they were treated for legionnaires with the antibiotics but not knowing for sure."

Murdoch said given the research, New Zealand would now have the highest incidence of legionella in the world.

"You could ask the question again, do we actually have the highest incidence in the world or is it just because we're looking and it's probably just because we're looking."

Legionnaires could be difficult to diagnose, as a specific test needed to be carried out by a limited number of laboratories in New Zealand.

In Canterbury, currently all patients diagnosed with pneumonia are also tested for legionnaires. It's a practice he would like to see rolled out across the country.

The results of their research have been given back to the participating DHBs, which would now decide whether to adopt Canterbury's process or continue as per normal.

Professor Murdoch said at the least, he would like to see the DHBs where the highest rate of legionnaires was found to start testing each pneumonia patient for the disease.

As for the widow, she said her husband's death was recorded as pneumonia, despite the legionella discovery just days before his death.

Professor Murdoch said he would like to see incidents like that reported as legionnaires so they could keep track of the publicly notifiable disease.

The woman said she's not sure how long her grief will last - she has friends who are still grieving 10 years on - but she accepts it's just part of the process.

"I always say I went to bed with [husband] for the first time on the 19 March and I woke up with him 58 years later on the 19 of March and he went into hospital that day."

She said her husband's immunity was in a fragile state

"He was definitely in deteriorating health, there's no doubt about that ... and that last nine years were pretty bad plus he had a cocktail of tablets that he took every day.

"That's what they told me, and I could accept, even though he had never been in that spa pool he had to have very low immune to be affected. Whereas other residents in the building had been in the spa pool and it didn't affect them.

"I was with him that day anyway when the breeze was blowing and the bubbles were circulating and I certainly wasn't affected, but at the end of the day, where the legionnaires came from, I don't know."

She still lived at the complex and life there was now good, there had been a change of management and residents all got along.

She was also now on the body corporate committee which oversaw the running of the apartments.

* DHBS in Whanganui, South Canterbury and Wairarapa did not take part in the study.
LEGIONNAIRES DISEASE

• Legionnaires is a severe form of pneumonia resulting in an infection of the lungs
• Most commonly contracted from contaminated water, soil or compost
• Need a specific test carried out to confirm a legionnaires infection
• Elderly men with low immune systems most susceptible to it
• The incubation period for the disease is 14 days
• Legionnaires is not contagious
• About two-thirds of cases were admitted to hospital during spring and winter
• Almost 60 per cent of patients were aged over 65