A mysterious disease caused by the bacteria Elizabethkingia, which commonly occurs in soil or water and is usually harmless, has wreaked havoc in Wisconsin.
The obscure bacterium rarely sickens people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is why the current situation in the state has baffled medical professionals and officials.
Over the past five months, 54 people have reportedly fallen ill due to the blood infection while 15 people have died. The illness includes fever, shortness of breath, chills, or cellulitis, a skin infection that can cause pain or redness.
Although officials aren’t sure if the victims died from Elizabethkingia or an underlying health conditions made worse by the infection, since it compromises one’s immune system, the fact remains that an outbreak of such magnitude is quite unprecedented.
The state contacted the CDC earlier this year to investigate the situation, but what makes things more baffling is that federal agency has not been able to figure out how the disease is spreading. The team of about 70 doctors and epidemiologists initially suspected contaminated tap water as the culprit, but the tap water in Wisconsin turned up negative for the bacteria, leaving the specialists stumped.
“We can assume that bacteria like this are in normal tap water, in the food and vegetables that we eat regularly, and it doesn’t harm us because we have natural defenses,” said Michael Bell, deputy director for the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC. “It’s only a problem when those defenses are somehow compromised.”
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Those who acquired the bacteria live across 12 different counties and are predominantly over 65 years of age, which makes the source even harder to figure out. However, the scientists believe the specimens have the same genetic “fingerprint,” which means the infection originated at one place.
Fortunately, Elizabethkingia is not contagious. But since the researchers have so far been unsuccessful in tracing its pattern, the spread of this disease is rather disturbing and worrisome.