Rare Bacterial Infection Kills 15 People in Wisconsin

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are helping investigate the mysterious outbreak in Wisconsin. (PHOTO CREDIT: David Goldman/AP)
Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are helping investigate the mysterious outbreak in Wisconsin. (PHOTO CREDIT: David Goldman/AP)

The rare bacterial infections began cropping up late last year across parts of southeastern Wisconsin, affecting dozens of people who had little in common, other than their advanced age and a history of existing health problems.

A dozen people got sick, and then another dozen. More than four months later, the number has grown to 48. So far, 15 patients have died, though it remains unclear whether the infection was to blame. Federal and state authorities are still trying to figure out where the infections are coming from, and investigators remain baffled. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services traces the outbreak — involving bacteria called Elizabethkingia, which is prevalent in the environment but usually not harmful to most people — to last November.

These cases largely involve Wisconsin residents older than 65, and all were found in a dozen counties in the southeastern and southern parts of the state, according to the health department. State health officials also say that all of the people who have been infected have a history of at least one serious underlying illness.

The number of cases is remarkable, given how infrequently these infections are seen, said Michael Bell, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

He said the agency sees a handful of Elizabethkingia infections around the country each year, but the outbreaks rarely involve more than a couple of cases at a time. To have dozens of cases at once — and more than a third of them possibly fatal — is startling.

“It’s one of the largest [Elizabethkingia outbreaks] that I’m aware of, and certainly the largest one we’ve investigated,” Bell said.

The state health department said last week that 18 people died after testing positive for the bacteria, but officials added that it was not clear yet if the infection, other health issues or a combination that caused these deaths. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the ongoing outbreak is that the bacteria involved all share an identical genetic fingerprint, suggesting that these infections are coming from a single source.

“If we can find the source, the we can keep it from infecting more people,” Bell said.

An investigation involving the state’s Division of Public Health and the CDC has not yet provided answers. Wisconsin health officials say they were first told about half a dozen possible cases between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, and began statewide surveillance a day later. A lab test is needed to confirm that someone is infected with the bacteria, which can cause fever, shortness of breath and chills.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Mark Berman and Brady Dennis