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Wisconsin Outbreak of Rare Blood Infection Reaches Michigan, Total Death Toll Hits 18

First Posted: Mar 21, 2016 06:44 AM EDT

A rare blood infection caused by the Elizabethkingia anopheles bacteria has been contracted by people in Wisconsin the past few months. It was recently confirmed to have claimed a life in Michigan.

This brings the total death toll of the illness to 18, with the 17 people already having died of the infection in Wisconsin since the outbreak first occurred in November 2015.

Increasing Number of Infections in Wisconsin

Health officials revealed that the bloodstream infection is caused by the Elizabethkingia bacteria, which is often found in water and soil, but it seldom causes infections. However, since November 2015, 54 residents of Wisconsin have contracted it.

"Most of the time when we hear about Elizabethkingia it's in the setting of sporadic cases, usually in a hospital or healthcare facility, and often in the setting of a patient who is very vulnerable and frail or has other illnesses that render them susceptible to infection," Dr. Nasia Safdar, University of Wisconsin Hospital's director of infection control, said in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, adding that the outbreak is "very unusual."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) matched the infection in Michigan to the outbreak in Wisconsin as the strands seemed to be from the same source. The cases are still being investigated by the CDC for clues of its patterns.

Studying the Rise of Cases

Many of the people who contracted the infection were over 65 with other health problems and low immunity. A number of people caught it in a nursing home and hospital, but there were also those who were more geographically spread out.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Public Health continue to conduct site visits and tests, although samples of the potential sources have all come back negative including from contaminated water, health care products and the environment

Concern over the infection is growing, especially as the bacterial strand has already killed over a dozen of people or about 54 percent of its victims. Furthermore, it's proven to be extremely tricky to treat as it is resistant to a lot of antibiotics. For a higher chance of success, it often takes a combination of several drugs as well as a well-functioning immune system in the patient.

While the health officials are not entirely certain of the reason behind the boost in numbers the past few months, people -- especially those who live in Wisconsin and Michigan -- are urged to be more cautious and keep an eye out for symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, chills or cellulitis. Health officials recommend visiting a physician if symptoms continue for possible laboratory tests.

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