A rare bacterial illness — Elizabethkingia — is increasingly spreading across the United States with cases in three states and at least 20 deaths from confirmed cases so far.
Now, local researchers are among those who are studying the bacteria that rarely makes anyone sick but whose recent outbreak in some Midwest states has left health officials baffled.
The bacteria is commonly found in river water, reservoirs and soil. It does not usually cause illness, but has recently been found in health care settings when the bacteria contaminates medical equipment.
The bacterial illness is currently spreading across the Midwest, where three states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois — have reported confirmed cases and deaths. Wisconsin has 59 confirmed cases and 18 deaths; Michigan has 1 confirmed case which includes a death; and one confirmed case, which also includes a death, is in Illinois, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Dr. Joseph Carlin, professor and assistant chair of the Department of Microbiology at Miami University, said the outbreak of the common organism is unusual.
“Scientists do not yet know why this outbreak is occurring,” he said. “Since we do not know how the disease is being acquired, it is difficult to say if we will see it in Ohio, or if there is greater risk in any particular part of the state.”
People most at risk of developing infections with Elizabethkingia are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Most of the Wisconsin patients were 65 or older and have some history of underlying serious illness, according to Carlin.
Dr. Ginger Cameron, Cedarville University professor of pharmacy practice, has been studying Elizabethkingia, which is named after the American microbiologist Elizabeth King who discovered the bacterium.
“We typically see a few cases per state each year and those are normally associated with hospital transmitted cases,” Cameron said. “This outbreak is unique in that we have not been able to identify the source, and we have seen more cases than ever before.”
“It is possible it may come to Ohio, but the risk is low,” she said.
Antibiotics are used to treat the virus.
“It is antibiotic resistant so only a few antibiotics will work. It can be fatal because it attacks people who already have health concerns,” Cameron said.
The best way to prevent catching the Elizabethkingia virus? Good hygiene, according to the researchers.
“Good hand hygiene helps. Be sure to wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap,” Cameron said.