Everything You Need to Know About The Recent Elizabethkingia Outbreak

By Kento F. 

There has been news going around of another disease outbreak in the midwest. It's a little-known bacteria called Elizabethkingia.

What is Elizabethkingia?
Elizabethkingia is a bacteria commonly found in nature. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as follows:

Elizabethkingia is a genus of bacteria commonly found in the environment worldwide and has been detected in soil, river water and reservoirs. However, it rarely makes people sick. Cases are diagnosed through culture of body fluids, most often blood testing. Elizabethkingia has mostly caused meningitis in newborn babies and meningitis or bloodstream and respiratory infections in people with weakened immune systems. About 5-10 cases per state per year are reported in the United States, with a few small, localized outbreaks reported in both the United States and other countries, usually in healthcare settings.
To date, CDC has confirmed a total of 59 cases confirmed (57 in Wisconsin, 1 each in Michigan and Illinois) while 20 deaths were confirmed (18 in Wisconsin, 1 each in Michigan and Illinois).
So Elizabethkingia is actually all around us, in dirt, water, etc. It's only when a person's immune system is weak that this bacteria can cause problems.

What is considered an "outbreak?"
The term "outbreak" may make the news sound like a disease is spreading across the state/country like wildfire, but that may not be the case.  The World Health Organization defines the term "outbreak" as follows:
A disease outbreak is the occurrence of cases of disease in excess of what would normally be expected in a defined community, geographical area or season. An outbreak may occur in a restricted geographical area, or may extend over several countries. It may last for a few days or weeks, or for several years.

A single case of a communicable disease long absent from a population, or caused by an agent (e.g. bacterium or virus) not previously recognized in that community or area, or the emergence of a previously unknown disease, may also constitute an outbreak and should be reported and investigated.
So outbreak just means an increase above the normal or expected occurrence. Often times "outbreak" is confused with "epidemic" or "pandemic." An epidemic is when a disease spreads rapidly to many people. A pandemic is a world-wide outbreak. Pandemic may also mean that their's a new strain of bacteria that no one is immune too, or that the bacteria is one that easily spreads to others.

Should We Panic?
Before deciding to panic or not, let's look at some facts. First, because it's found in dirt and rivers this bacteria has probably been around humans for thousands of years. It hasn't caused much damage in all that time and, in fact, it was so quite it wasn't even discovered until 1959! Second, when comparing the number of Elizabethkingia cases with the number of flu cases, we see that this outbreak is very small. Remember, an outbreak can mean a normally dormant disease has suddenly spiked. Check out this graph: (keep in mind that we are comparing elizabethkingia to only .001% of flu cases in America.)

.001% is a very small percentage. To illustrate, the width of a hair is .001% the height of a 3 story building! That puts into perspective that Elizabethkingia, although possibly fatal in young or old victims, is hardly an endemic. Unless history changes drastically, it shouldn't be an issue for the majority of people.
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