Elizabethkingia Kills Illinois Woman As ‘Disease Detectives’ Chase Outbreak’s Origins

The mystery infection Elizabethkingia has spread to another state from Wisconsin, where an outbreak has already killed 18 people. Meanwhile, infectious disease experts still don’t know where it has come from.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has confirmed one case of Elizabethkingia in a woman who died in March, CNN reported.

She has been identified as 52-year-old Kimberly Cencula and is the first case of Elizabethkingia in the state, CBS Chicago reported. Her samples were sent to CDC for testing and it’s been confirmed that her results indicate she died of the same strain of Elizabethkingia that has killed over a dozen in the Wisconsin outbreak.

A family member said that Cencula had underlying health issues, a fact also confirmed by the state’s Department of Public Health, Reuters added.

Right now, health officials don’t know how the Illinois woman contracted Elizabethkingia. They are interviewing family members and trying to determine the extent of her social network to discover the origin of her illness. According to the Chicago Daily Herald, Cencula was a former model and an avid gardener; she leaves behind two children and her mother.

Another case has surfaced in Michigan, and is also of the same strain. Little else has been reported about this case, except that the infected person didn’t die.

However, the CDC was not surprised that Elizabethkingia showed up there. Spokesman Tom Skinner chalked it up to health departments’ awareness of the illness after the outbreak in Wisconsin took root and the cause was pinpointed.

The mysterious disease infects the blood. Symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, chills, and a bacterial skin infection called cellulitis. Unfortunately, Elizabethkingia is resistant to bacteria and therefore hard to treat.

The Elizabethkingia bacteria is found in soil, river water, and reservoirs, but usually doesn’t make people sick. It’s not transmitted person-to-person. Anyone with a weakened immune system or an underlying health issue is at risk of contracting the bacteria.

Up to 500 cases occur each year. A species of the bacteria called anopheles, identified in 2011 in mosquitoes, has been blamed for the outbreak in Wisconsin. It’s not clear if the insects are spreading the disease. The bacteria is named after the woman who discovered it, Elizabeth King, in 1959.

The majority of those who succumbed to Elizabethkingia were elderly and already sick. The outbreak began last November, and since then, 57 people have been infected and 18 of them have died. Most of those victims were over 65 and had “at least one serious underlying illness.”

It’s not clear, however, whether their deaths were caused by Elizabethkingia, their previous health issues, or a combination of both.

As the outbreak appears to spread, health officials in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan will now work in concert with the CDC to identify the source. “Disease detectives,” as The Wisconsin State Journal calls them, have investigated the outbreak by taking environmental samples, interviewing patients and family, reviewing medical records, testing water, medications, vaccines, and household products.

CDC officials are even taking a look at food receipts in nursing homes to see if the outbreak is being spread from food. They’re also testing healthy people to see if they could be spreading the illness to the vulnerable, and tracking down social networks to find common locations and activities.

No common source of Elizabethkingia has been found and the outbreak appears to be sporadic and the cases unconnected. Officials have, however, ruled out the water system as a cause of the outbreak in Wisconsin.

“Every other hypothesis remains open,” said state health officer Karen McKeown. “Until we find a source, we are not ruling anything out.”

[Photo By Manop Boonjumnian / Shutterstock]