A HOSPITAL at the centre of a probe into series of infant deaths requires an urgent overhaul of its pipework to avoid a "life-threatening" outbreak of deadly Legionella bacteria.

A report warned that all domestic hot, cold and drainage pipework at University Hospital Crosshouse in Kilmarnock must be replaced within the next five years to prevent a potentially lethal contamination of the water supply used by staff and patients.

Ayrshire and Arran health board was asked to sign off the £2.5 million upgrade as part of a raft of urgent maintenance work totalling £5.74m, which also includes improved fire-proofing at a number of hospital sites after it emerged that the current design could put patients at risk from the "unrestricted spread" of fire and smoke.

The 'Property and Asset Management Strategy' report, submitted at yesterday's [Monday] health board meeting, said the pipework in place at Crosshouse is "over 35 years old, well beyond its life expectancy and suffering from continual leakage".

The report added: "Pipework is showing major signs of biofilm formation, which has the potential for major Legionella issues. Failure to fund [pipework replacement] will result in increased instances of pipework leakage and catastrophic failures with the potential consequences of no water supply to areas of the hospital.

"Failure to replace the pipework will also lead to increased Legionella bacterial growth within that pipework, the consequences of which could be life-threatening to patients and staff."

In 1985, 28 patients died and a total of 175 fell ill after an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at Stafford District Hospital in England, traced back to the spread of Legionella in the air conditioning system. It was one of the worst ever hospital outbreaks.

Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia which is particularly harmful to people with impaired immune systems, diabetes, chronic respiratory or kidney disease, or lung and heart disease. Smokers and heavy drinkers are also more vulnerable. It is caused when legionella - a bacteria which occurs naturally in water - multiplies to dangerous levels.

The report also highlighted a range of failings in fire safety compliance at the hospital and at University Hospital Ayr, Biggart Hospital in Prestwick and at medical centres in Lochranza and Lamlash on Arran.

Referring to Crosshouse, the report said that gaps in fire compartmentation "have historically occurred over a period of many years" and "would allow for unchecked fire development with detrimental affect on patient safety". It added that fire-resistant barriers must be fitted no further than 20 metres (65ft) apart in the ceiling cavities above wards, warning that failure to do so "may lead to unrestricted fire and smoke spread" if a blaze broke out.

The report also warned that patients would face increased delays and cancellations to operations, and higher risk of infection, unless upgrades were made to the theatres at both Crosshouse and Ayr hospitals. At Crosshouse, ventilation systems designed to prevent bacteria from entering the operating room were "approaching a condition where major disruption to theatres may result". The report recommended replacing them over three years at a cost of £800,000.

Crosshouse is already at the centre of a review into its care following reports than six babies had died there "unnecessarily" since 2008.

A spokeswoman for NHS Ayrshire and Arran confirmed that funding for the 21 backlog maintenance schemes had been approved by the board. The plans will now be submitted to the Scottish Government.