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Elizabethkingia meningoseptica

Mysterious bacteria has killed 18 people in southeast Wisconsin

A mysterious bacterial infection has affected 44 people in southeast Wisconsin and been a factor in 18 deaths, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent five employees to Wisconsin to help DHS find a common link among people who’ve been infected by the bacteria, according to The Associated Press.

Known as Elizabethkingia, the bacteria infects the bloodstream. All identified cases have occurred in southern and southeast Wisconsin, and they have so far involved only people with serious underlying health conditions, said state health officer Karen McKeown.

Symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, chills, skin rash or cellulitis, health officials said. Confirmation of the illness requires a laboratory test.

Elizabethkingia typically affects only people with compromised immune systems or serious underlying health conditions. The majority of those sickened have been over age 65, and no cases have been reported among children.

McKeown said the source of the infection is unknown, but the bacteria does not appear to be spread from person to person.

Searching for clues of how people became infected, representatives from the CDC and state investigators are conducting interviews with patients, as well as with the family members of those who have died.

The CDC said that although Elizabethkingia is a common organism in the environment, including water and soil, it rarely causes infections. A variety of potential sources, including health-care products, water sources and the environment, was being tested. But none so far has been found to be a source of the bacteria.

Melissa Brower, a spokeswoman with the CDC, said each state generally sees about five to 10 cases of the bacteria per year. A number of small, localized outbreaks have also been reported.

The infection is dangerous in that it’s resistant to a number of antibiotics.

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