MILWAUKEE -- A bacterial outbreak has sickened more than 40 people in the state of Wisconsin, and 18 people died after being infected. The bacteria is called "Elizabethkingia" and health officials say it has infected people in eleven counties so far, including Milwaukee County.
If you think of the Elizabethkingia outbreak as a medical mystery, then the Wisconsin Department of Health Services would be your detective bureau.
"This is a very serious and complex situation," said Karen McKoewn, state health officer and administrator for the Division of Public Health at Wisconsin's Department of Health Services.
Officials with the Department of Health Services is trying to figure out how Elizabethkingia, a bacteria that doesn't usually cause infections in humans, has sickened 44 people since the start of November. 18 of the people who tested positive for Elizabethkingia have since died.
"All of the 44 have been adults. Most of them have been over 65 and all of them have had significant underlying health conditions," said McKoewn.
To complicate the case, FOX6 News is told this particular strain of Elizabethkingia has never been seen in Wisconsin before, and they're still trying to figure out how so many people got infected.
"Our disease detectives are looking diligently at all clues to try to figure out what is the source of the infection," said McKoewn.
We're told the 44 people who were infected didn't have contact with each other, and they don't think the bacteria is spreading from person to person. Disease detectives are currently interviewing patients, their families and caregivers.
"Where has this person been? Whom have they been in contact with? What have they been in contact with? These are extensive interviews and then we comb through that information for common themes across patients to try to figure out what might be the source of this infection," said McKoewn.
Eleven counties in southern Wisconsin have now seen cases, including Milwaukee County.
"The symptoms for this are very similar to other bacterial infections, which is why we would just encourage you, anything you would usually call your doctor about, call them about now," said McKoewn.
FOX6 News is told Elizabethkingia is resistant to some antibiotics. Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials have been circulating information to the state's healthcare providers about the best antibiotics and treatment to fight this bacteria.
A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in Wisconsin working with state health officials to investigate this outbreak, according to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. The agency is also conducting tests on environmental samples being sent from Wisconsin to its Atlanta lab.
The number of people known to be infected is expected to rise as more cases are identified and confirmed.
The bacteria is named after American bacteriologist Elizabeth King, who discovered it in 1959.