Rare Infectious Bacterial Outbreak Leaves Wisconsin Officials Puzzled

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An outbreak of Elizabethkingia, an infectious bacteria, has affected 44 people in southern Wisconsin and may have led to the deaths of 18 people. Jim Young/Reuters

Officials in Wisconsin are investigating an outbreak involving a rare bacterium that may be linked to the deaths of nearly 20 people in the past few months.

The bacteria, Elizabethkingia anophelis, cause infections in the bloodstream and has mainly affected people over the age of 65 in southern Wisconsin. Fourty-four people were infected between November 1 and March 2, and the bacteria could be responsible for the deaths of 18, NBC News reports.

So-called disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been called in to help find the source of the infection.

All the patients studied so far have a history of at least one underlying illness, including diabetes, renal disease or cirrhosis, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Symptoms of Elizabethkingia infection include shortness of breath, fever and chills.

"The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Division of Public Health (DPH) is currently investigating an outbreak of bloodstream infections caused by Elizabethkingia," the department said in a statement on Thursday. "At this time, the source of these infections is unknown and the Department is working diligently to contain this outbreak."

Health officials in the state are investigating possible sources of the outbreak, and are now testing water, skin care products and medications, The Wisconsin State Journal reports. The state health officer, Karen McKeown, told the newspaper that there is no evidence of transmission between people and there are no cases reported among children.

Named after bacteriologist Elizabeth King, the bacteria were discovered in 1959. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says early detection and treatment is especially important for the best chance of recovery.

Rare Infectious Bacterial Outbreak Leaves Wisconsin Officials Puzzled | U.S.