6 deaths linked to Elizabethkingia in Illinois

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois health officials are reporting a cluster of cases of a rare bloodstream infection they detected while investigating a Wisconsin outbreak.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced Wednesday an additional 10 cases of infection from the bacterium Elizabethkingia, including six deaths. The strain is different from the one in Wisconsin, however.

Health officials say there are only about 5 to 10 cases of Elizabethkingia in each state each year. In Illinois, it's not required to be reported to the Department of Public Health, but researchers want to know more about statewide cases after the uptick in infections in Wisconsin.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav D. Shah said it's not known whether the bacteria was a contributing factor in those deaths as they also had unrelated health conditions.

"Because the vast majority of individuals who have been infected are over the age of 65 and have an underlying health condition, it's difficult to know whether those people died because of Elizabethkingia or with Elizabethkingia," Dr. Shah said.

Elizabethkingia exists normally in the environment and can be found in water and soil. It rarely causes infections in humans.

But now, it's caught the attention of health officials after 63 cases have been reported in Wisconsin since November. Nineteen of those cases have been fatal. One case has also been reported in Michigan.

Now, the search is on to find any links among the people infected.

"One of the areas of intense investigation is to try to understand how is it that certain people who are exposed become infected with the bacteria," Dr. Shah said.

In light of the Wisconsin outbreak, the Illinois Department of Public Health requested that hospitals and labs in the state report cases of Elizabethkingia going back to 2014. That was not a requirement for health care providers until now. Shah says it's important to have a heightened awareness about the bacteria.

"Right now, our main focus is to find out why where and how certain people get infected," Dr. Shah said.

Symptoms of Elizabethkingia include cough, high fever, shortness of breath and joint pain in some cases. It's resistant to many antibiotics, although there are a few doctors identified that can treat it.

However, regular hand washing is a good way to try to prevent any bacterial infection.
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