Those named Elizabeth King won’t be pleased to read this story. What was to-date a rare bacteria, Elizabethkingia anophelis, has infected more than 50 people in the US in what appears to be an outbreak, based on the threshold set by the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 18 deaths have been linked to the outbreak so far.
Health officials in the two states with victims—Wisconsin and Michigan—are still unsure how the outbreak began. Here’s what we do know about the bacteria, based on insight provided to Quartz by microbiology specialist Yun Wang of Emory University School of Medicine and infectious-disease specialist Nirav Patel of Saint Louis University Hospital.
The bacterial genus Elizabethkingia is named after Elizabeth King, a CDC microbiologist who discovered its first species in 2011. Since then, many other species in the genus have been found, including E. anophelis, which is responsible for the infections in the current US outbreak.
Genetic analysis by the CDC has revealed that the infections may have come from a single source, but what is of concern is that health authorities haven’t yet found the source. According to Wang, most previous cases acquired the infection in hospitals, which have always been a hotbed of microbial infections.
Elizabethkingia are usually found in water, soil, or, insects. Most healthy people can defend against an attack by the bacteria. Those at risk are people with weak immune systems, such as children or older adults. Most of those who died in the recent outbreak were over the age of 65 years, and had serious underlying health conditions.
The infection can manifest differently in different people. E. anophelis can infect the blood, respiratory tract, or the skin. If not treated with antibiotics, the severity of the infection can increase, resulting in septic shock, difficulty breathing, or rashes and swelling, and can sometimes prove fatal.
Elizabethkingia are fighters. It can resist disinfectants such as bleach and even drugs. The species E. meningosepticum, for instance, is known to be resistant to some of the most powerful antibiotics.
The good news is that, while all the species in the genus have some form of drug resistance, they are not resistant to all drugs. The key is to identify the organism and use the right antibiotic, a difficult, but not impossible task.
For now, local health officials are preparing for the possibility of more cases of the infection being identified and will continue searching for its source.