Rare Elizabethkingia Bacterial Infection in Newborn Could Shed Light on Outbreak Mystery

PHOTO: Elizabethkingia bacteria is pictured in this undated still image.PlayWISN
WATCH CDC Warns of Outbreak of Elizabethkingia Infection

Wisconsin health officials are investigating if a suspected case of the rare bacterial infection called Elizabethkingia at a children's hospital could be related to an ongoing outbreak that has infected at least 61 people in three states.

The newest suspected case at the Wisconsin Children's Hospital was diagnosed in an infant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, according to hospital officials. The bacterial infection has infected 59 people from Wisconsin alone, of which 18 people have died, according to health officials. Two other fatal cases were reported in Michigan and Illinois, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A sample from the infected patient has been sent to the state health department to determine whether this is the same strain of the virus that has infected dozens of others.

"There is no indication of serious infection in that child and the patient’s family is aware," hospitals officials said in a statement on Thursday. "A sample of the organism has been provided to the State Health Department and CDC."

Elizabethkingia results from bacteria that is naturally occurring in soil, river water and reservoirs, and normally affects those with compromised immune systems. There are different strains of the bacteria, which can cause meningitis in infants and respiratory infections in people with compromised immune systems.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said it's unusual that disease detectives at the CDC and local health departments have been unable to locate the source of the outbreak.

"It frustrates them and surprises us all," Schaffner told ABC News. "It’s such a distinctive organism. ... This is a much larger challenge than first was assumed."

Past outbreaks have been linked to people with compromised immune systems being exposed in a health care center through an infected piece of equipment, Schaffner said, but so far there's no indication that is what happened in this outbreak.

If the infant has the same strain as the other people in the outbreak, it may help investigators crack the source of the bacteria, Schaffner said. Genetic testing of the bacteria will allow investigators to determine if it's related to the same disease strain that infected others in the outbreak.

"That, from the point of view of the investigation, could be an enormous gift," he said. "The infant's environment is extremely circumscribed and investigators can go and work with that family to literally, hour-by-hour, go over that infant's activities and life."

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