Credit: Dori

The bacteria Elizabethkingia anopheles has claimed 17 lives over the last five months in 12 Wisconsin counties, and caused 54 people to become seriously ill. As yet, no one has been able to trace the source of the infection.

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Elizabethkingia anopheles is named for a famous researcher who worked with the CDC in the mid-1900s. Found in the guts of mosquitoes, it is not a dangerous bacteria for anyone with a healthy immune system, but can cause life-threatening infections in young babies, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

Credit: Dr. Saptarshi

It begins as a simple infection but, if unchecked by the person’s immune system, the bacteria can cause life-threatening meningitis or pneumonia. So far, all the victims of this outbreak have been over the age of 65 and have other serious health conditions, which weakened their immune system and left them susceptible.

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Most states don’t get more than five to 10 cases a year, so this represents a huge spike in infection rates. And the bacteria involved have, according to CDC official Michael Bell, the same “fingerprint,” despite the fact that cases of infection span 12 different counties. The lack of variation in their genes indicates that they probably came from the same “parent” bacteria at a single source.

Past outbreaks of Elizabethkingia have come through contaminated water sources. This time, however, the CDC has checked local water sources and found no evidence of the bacteria. Although officials are still working to pinpoint the source of the infection, currently no one has any idea how the bacteria is infecting all these people.

It’s unlikely that anyone with a healthy immune system is in danger. However, Wisconsin residents who see the symptoms of infection in elderly, very young, or immuno-compromised people might want to seek medical attention as soon as possible. The first signs are fever, shortness of breath, chills, or cellulitis—a redness and localized swelling under the skin that usually appears on the lower legs. The only way of knowing for sure if someone is infected requires a laboratory test, so don’t make a home diagnosis and don’t delay.

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[IFL Science, Wisconsin Department of Health Services]