What is Elizabethkingia?

By Kacey Kroh, Abshier House

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Elizabethkingia is a bacterial organism that is found in the environment. Because the bacterium is common, it rarely causes infections in humans. However, two unrelated outbreaks in the Midwest have occurred since 2014. The media attention caused by the outbreaks has left many people with unanswered questions about this new health threat.

Elizabethkingia
©iStockPhoto.com/nicolas_
Bacterial cultures need to be grown to detect the organism.

 

What does Elizabethkingia do to humans?

Elizabethkingia typically does nothing to humans. However, since 1959 two of the strains (Elizabethkingia anophelis and Elizabethkingia meningoseptica) were discovered to be deadly to people with weakened or compromised immune systems. This means infants, children, the elderly, and people with immune deficiencies and/or other health issues are at risk for infection.

If infection does occur, the bacteria can cause meningitis, sepsis, and a whole host of other symptoms. Some symptoms of Elizabethkingia include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Painful urination
  • Kidney infection
  • Poor organ function
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low urine flow/output
  • Sudden weight loss

If you are experiencing several of these symptoms, you should see a doctor. This set of symptoms can be an indication of Elizabethkingia, as well as other fatal illnesses such as cancer and HIV.

Meningitis and sepsis are both serious conditions that require you to seek medical treatment immediately. Both can be fatal and can kill in a matter of hours or days!

Where can Elizabethkingia bacteria be found?

Elizabethkingia is a common bacterium that can be found in soil, water, and on plants. The bacteria are most abundant in lush, warm environments such as rain forests, jungles, and tropical/subtropical areas, but can be found almost anywhere.

Avoiding the bacteria is virtually impossible. However, coming into contact with the bacteria does not mean you will get sick and die. Even people with weakened immune systems come into contact with this type of bacteria on a regular basis.

How does Elizabethkingia infect humans?

Because Elizabethkingia is so common, it is unclear exactly how one person gets infected. The CDC and Epidemic Information Exchange system, also known as Epi-X, have no clear-cut answers. However, they indicate that infection is most likely due to ingestion of the bacterium by a person with a compromised or weakened immune system.

If you are worried about ingesting these nasty bacteria, you can take a few steps to ease your mind. For example, you can:

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cutting, peeling, or eating.
  • Wash your hands regularly throughout the day.
  • Cook foods to recommended safe temperatures.
  • Filter or buy bottled water.

If you are still worried about Elizabethkingia infection, you can also take precautionary measures to boost your immune system by exercising, eating healthy, and taking immune-boosting vitamin supplements.

How is Elizabethkingia bacteria infection treated?

If a person is infected with Elizabethkingia and it is detected before fatal symptoms occur, a strong series of antibiotics can be given to rid the body of the bacteria. Because symptoms typically come on so quickly, most people infected with the bacteria die suddenly. Also, because people infected by the bacteria already have underlying health issues, it is not certain whether death occurs as a result of Elizabethkingia or other complications.