What is Elizabethkingia

Originally published March 4, 2016 What is Elizabethkingia, and why is it so dangerous?

Elizabethkingia is a bacterium that infects the bloodstream and colonizes in the respiratory tract.

It's considered "opportunistic" bacteria, affecting mostly people with weakened immune systems that can't fight it off.

The bacteria are also resistant to multiple drugs, although treatments are available and are often effective when started early enough after the infection.

The particular strain seen in Wisconsin is Elizabethkingia anepholis.

How many cases are reported in Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Health says 48 case were reported in twelve counties in southern Wisconsin between November 1, 2015, and March 2, 2016: Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Jefferson, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Sauk, Washington, Sheboygan, and Waukesha counties.

Everyone infected was over 65 and had serious health complications, including at least one chronic illness.

Fifteen patients died with Elizabethkingia in their blood, but the infection isn't confirmed as the cause of their deaths, since all of them already had serious health complications.

State health officials plan to update the data every Wednesday. Numbers could climb as a result of better diagnosis of infections, not just due to spread of the outbreak.

Where did it come from?

State health officials don't know the source or sources of these infections. The CDC is helping with that investigation. The bacteria are usually found in water but can spread from other tainted sources.

Health officials do not think it's spreading from person-to-person -- whether by personal contact or sharing the air.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include fever, shortness of breath or chills. There may also be cellulitis, a redness and swelling from a skin infection that may feel hot and tender to the touch.

The DPH advises suspicion of infection should be higher if a patient has multiple chronic conditions, "particularly malignancy, diabetes mellitus, chronic renal disease or end-stage renal disease on dialysis, alcohol dependence, alcoholic cirrhosis, immune compromising conditions or immunosuppressive treatment."

A lab test is required to confirm Elizabethkingia.

What can be done to prevent Elizabethkingia infections?

The Department of Public Health says it alerted health care providers, infection prevention specialists and laboratories in the state. It says this awareness has improved identification of cases and led to quicker treatment and improved outcomes for patients. The infection is treated with an antibiotic regimen -- usually a combination of antibiotics.

Why is it called Elizabethkingia?

The bacteria are named after bacteriologist Elizabeth King. She identified the organism while studying pediatric meningitis when she worked at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1959.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emerging Microbes & Infections, National Institutes of Health, Wisconsin Department of Public Health