An Elizabethkingia outbreak is blamed for at least 18 deaths, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Although the outbreak is currently confined to one state, health officials confirmed at least 44 people were sickened by the obscure bacteria within the last four months.
Elizabethkingia anophelis was first described by Elizabeth O. King in 1959. Although human infections are rare, outbreaks have been reported in Central Africa and Singapore in the last three years.
Within the United States, between 250 and 500 Elizabethkingia anophelis infections are clinically diagnosed each year. However, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner confirmed Wisconsin is experiencing the nation’s largest recorded single outbreak.
Elizabethkingia outbreaks are generally confined to single hospitals or long-term care facilities. The Wisconsin outbreak is an exception, as it includes patients in 11 different counties.
As of March 3, Wisconsin healthcare officials have confirmed cases in Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Jefferson, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Sauk, Washington, and Waukesha counties.
Kenyon College reports the bacteria is specifically dangerous, as it is resistant to a wide range of antibiotics. Unfortunately, scientists are unsure how the bacteria is transmitted to humans, but previous outbreaks were linked to contaminated water or other liquids.
In an attempt to identify the source, the Wisconsin State Journal reports healthcare officials are “testing water, skin care products, and over-the-counter medications.” They are also interviewing the surviving patients and their families to find a common link.
Dr. Chris Braden, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases division, said he and his colleagues have already “collected a lot of data.” Unfortunately, they have not “identified a source or even a strong hypothesis”
Common symptoms of the deadly infection include cellulitis, chills, fever, and shortness of breath. In an interview with WKOW, University of Wisconsin Infection Control Medical Director Nasia Safdar explains that the infection may affect patients in different ways.
“It’s because you have bacteria in the blood stream, depending on the sight of the infection, if it’s pneumonia you would have respiratory issues, a skin infection, you might see redness at the wound.”
Although symptoms may indicate an infection, Elizabethkingia anophelis cannot be officially confirmed without laboratory testing.
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A majority of the patients involved in the Wisconsin Elizabethkingia outbreak are over the age of 65. The Department of Health Services also noted a vast majority of the patients were already diagnosed with other serious health conditions, including “malignancy, diabetes mellitus, chronic renal disease… alcohol dependence, alcoholic cirrhosis, [and] immune compromising conditions.”
At this time, health officials have not confirmed whether the 18 patients who died succumbed to their original illness or died as a direct result of the Elizabethkingia infection.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services Administrator Karen McKeown confirmed the first cases were diagnosed in December 2015. However, the information was not immediately released to the public because healthcare officials did not want to cause a panic.
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As the number of infections continued to rise, McKeown said it was necessary to inform the public and to seek further assistance from the CDC.
State and federal officials are currently working together to identify the source of the outbreak and to prevent more people from becoming infected.
— WKOW 27 (@WKOW) March 4, 2016
The specific number of patients infected with Elizabethkingia is unknown at this time. However, healthcare officials expect the numbers to rise in the coming weeks.
Officials confirmed the Elizabethkingia outbreak has not spread to any other states. Unfortunately, until they identify the source, it may continue to spread.
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