Rare infection Elizabethkingia has killed 17 people in the U.S. — what is it?

Elizabethkingia anophelis growing on a blood agar plate.
Elizabethkingia anophelis growing on a blood agar plate. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An outbreak of infection has sickened 53 people in Wisconsin and Michigan and 17 people have died, according to health officials.

The outbreak is caused by a bacteria called Elizabethkingia, and disease detectives are trying to determine the source. The cases have occurred between Nov. 1, 2015 and March 23, 2016.

Elizabethkingia is named for Elizabeth O. King, a bacteriologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There have been 59 cases reported — 53 have been confirmed – one case in Michigan and 52 in Wisconsin.

It is a bacteria usually found in water and soil. According to Michigan health officials, Elizabethkingia is a “genus of bacteria commonly found in the environment … however, it rarely makes people sick.”

The majority of the infections have been in the bloodstream, but a few patients have had respiratory and joint infections, the CDC said.

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Elizabethkingia anophelis growing on a blood agar plate. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“We are currently actively searching for the source, we have ruled out many of the obvious concerns, such as municipal water supplies,” Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of division of healthcare quality promotion with the CDC told Global News.

“It doesn’t appear to be anywhere in the products or medical care type material that we have assessed so far. But we still search for actual source of this particular organism.”

Dr. Michael Bell is Deputy Director of Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

That’s why the spike in cases is puzzling.  The cases are all identical organisms in terms of “genetic fingerprinting” and that is “very unusual.” The identical fingerprint makes it look like all the infections are from a single source, according to Bell. There are usually only a handful of yearly cases.

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To try to unravel the mystery of the rising Elizabethkingia cases, the CDC has sent seven disease detectives to Wisconsin to investigate. As well, state and federal investigators are testing samples from a variety of potential sources, including “health-care products, water sources and the environment.”

The CDC has also issued an alert, asking all states to send samples from any potential cases to the CDC for lab testing. So far the only match is between Wisconsin and Michigan.

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The majority of the cases have been in patients over 65, with underlying health conditions, according to the Wisconsion Department of Health.  Elizabethkingia infections can also be challenging to treat because these bacteria are inherently antibiotic-resistant.  The symptoms of infection can include fever, shortness of breath and chills.

Pictured here is a magnification of a single colony of Elizabethkingia anophelis. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services,  regarding the patients who have died “it has not been determined if the cause is the bacterial infection, or the patients’ other serious health conditions, or both.”

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Bell adds most healthy people probably drink or consume these organisms on a regular basis without illness, but those who are immune-compromised are at risk.

“The reason we are working so hard to find the source of this outbreak, is so that we can prevent further infection amongst people who are at risk,” Bell told Global News.

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