Since November, 15 people in Wisconsin have died from an obscure bacteria called Elizabethkingia. A total of 54 have caught the disease, according to Wired. The site arstechnica.com states 17 have died from it.
Elizabethkingia is common in the environment — in soil and in water — but it rarely gets people sick.
Michael Bell, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s healthcare quality division said, “The fact that we’re seeing more than four dozen cases, that is a very large outbreak.”
An outbreak of this size for Elizabethkingia, named for the bacteriologist who first isolated it in the 1950s, is reportedly unprecedented. The bacteria infects the blood, causing fever, chills, and shortness of breath, writes Wired.
It has been a mystery for the CDC’s disease detectives, a group of about 70 doctors who specialize in tracing the source of disease outbreaks. Wisconsin’s public health department contacted the CDC for help in February, and the federal agency now have team of seven people on the ground in Wisconsin.
At first, the CDC suspected the tap water. This January, the CDC’s emerging diseases journal published a report about a nearly two-year long Elizabethkingia outbreak in a critical care unit in London, England, that ended up originating with contaminated taps in hospital sinks.
However, the tap water in Wisconsin turned up negative for the bacteria.
Adding to the mystery, this outbreak doesn’t match the pattern of other infections, which appeared in clusters in the same facility. Most of Wisconsin patients were elderly; some lived in nursing homes and others had gone to the hospital, but they lived across 12 different counties.
At the same time, the genetic signature of the bacteria points to a single source. The infection seems to be community-acquired.
“Our disease detectives are working diligently to find the source,” said Jennifer Miller, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.