Elizabethkingia: It may be "weeks rather than days" before we know source of infection

MILWAUKEE -- The outbreak of Elizabethkingia is continuing to grow. The state now confirms there have been 48 people infected with Elizabethkingia Anophelis since the start of November. There have been four new cases in just the last week.

The bacteria strain has now hit patients in 12 counties. At least 18 people have died after being infected.

"Our main priority here is to try and find out where this is coming from so that we can prevent additional cases," said Dr. Michael Bell from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC has now sent in eight disease detectives to help Wisconsin health officials pin down the source of the outbreak. They say the information they have gathered so far points to the infections stemming from a single source.

"Not only is it all Elizabethkingia Anophelis but it is Anophelis species that has the exact genetic fingerprint across several dozen cases and that's very unusual," said Dr. Bell.

Wisconsin health officials say Elizabethkingia bacteria rarely infects humans. Most of the recently reported cases included people over age 65 -- and all of them had at least one serious underlying health concern -- something like diabetes, cancer or liver disease.

Dr. Bell tells FOX6 News Elizabethkingia is naturally found in dirt and water.

"It is an environmental organism that is found all around the planet," said Dr. Bell.

But the question disease detectives are trying to answer is how did it get into or onto the bodies of those who became infected?

"It could be getting into either a food supply or medication system or you name it, any number of ways," Dr. Bell said.

Because they're having to cast such a wide search, Dr. Bell cautions that an answer may still be a ways away.

"It's going to be weeks rather than days," said Dr. Bell.

Dr. Bell recommends if you or someone you know has an underlying health condition and you start showing signs of a bacterial infection, make sure you see your doctor right away to get it checked out.