Infections from a typically benign bacteria strain called Elizabethkingia have been linked to several deaths in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan over the past two years. Here’s what you should know about this potentially dangerous microorganism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Illinois and Wisconsin public health departments:
What is Elizabethkingia?
Elizabethkingia is a type of bacteria commonly found in the environment – usually in soil, river water or reservoirs. It gets its unusual name from the microbiologist who discovered it, Elizabeth O. King.
Is Elizabethkingia harmful to humans?
Humans rarely become ill from Elizabethkingia infections, but it has been known to cause meningitis in newborns and meningitis or other infections in people with weakened immune systems. Typically, only 5-10 cases of Elizabethkingia infections are reported per year. Most are bloodstream infections, but some have also been isolated in a patient’s respiratory system or a joint.
Symptoms of an infection include fever, shortness of breath, chills or cellulitis.
What’s going on with recent outbreaks?
Between November 2015 and April 2016, Wisconsin has seen an unusually high 59 confirmed cases of Elizabethkingia infections. Of these, 18 have died; however, it’s important to note that the majority of these patients were over age 65 and had at least one other serious health condition.
In Illinois, there have been 11 confirmed cases dating back to January 2014. Only one case, however, is linked to the same strain of the Elizabethkingia bacteria involved in the Wisconsin outbreak. Six of the Illinois patients have died, but, like the Wisconsin deaths, the patients were elderly and suffered from existing, complicating conditions.
Michigan has had one reported case that was linked to the Wisconsin strain and has also died.
Because of the age and complicating factors of the patients, health officials are not yet certain what role, if any, the Elizabethkingia infection played in the deaths.
“It is such an unusual organism to see in human infections. Intense investigation is under way by the CDC and state health officials to determine the source,” says Pam Bierbaum, an Advocate registered nurse who is a certified infection preventionist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. Infection preventionists are experts on preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases through practical methods.
How can you avoid an Elizabethkingia infection?
While an Elizabethkingia infection is rare, there’s a very simple solution to avoid it and many other illnesses.
“The most important infection prevention practice is consistent and thorough hand hygiene at all times, and reminding those around you of the same,” says Bierbaum. “This alone can prevent many bacterial infections.”