History / Origin
Described in 2005, Elizabethkingia is a genus of bacteria that contains 4 different species, which are found in a variety of environments and is quite common in our world, without creating any health problems to most people. This type of bacteria was named after the American microbiologist Elizabeth O. King, who was the one that discovered this type species, so it was named to honor her work and achievements in this domain. It is worth noting that this is the type of bacteria that can be commonly found in hospitals, especially in intensive care units, presenting genes that make the bacteria resistant to antibiotics and giving it the power to transform into virulent forms. Every year, about 5 to 10 cases of people getting sick because of Elizabethkingia are recorded, with minor outbreaks around the US and other countries of the world. However, it can be dangerous and even fatal in the case of newborn babies and people with a compromised immune system.
What is Elizabethkingia?
As mentioned before, Elizabethkingia is a genus of bacteria, which means that it contains several species. There is the Elizabethkingiaanophelis, which was found in the Anopheles mosquitos and is responsible for triggering diseases of the respiratory tract in humans, being the cause of the severe Elizabethkingia outbreak in Wisconsin, in 2016, which will be detailed later on in the article. There is also Elizabethkingiaendophytica, found in the blemished stems of sweet corn, Elizabethkingiamiricola, found in the condensation water in the Space Station Mir, and the notorious Elizabethkingiameningoseptica that is responsible for causing neonatal meningitis among infants and premature newborns. So, this commonly met bacteria can be very dangerous in some conditions and cause severe health problems. Besides thriving in hospital environments, where it can develop antibiotic-resistant strains, Elizabethkingia can usually be found in the soil, water reservoirs, and rivers, throughout the world. It is a bacteria that is not picky when it comes to the environment where it can survive and grow, not representing a danger to human health in the majority of the cases.
Symptoms and Treatment
Elizabethkingia does not cause health issues for most people as it is a common bacteria that can be found in a wide range of environments, so the probability for the human body to already have the suited antibodies to fight an infection with this kind of bacteria is very high. But, when Elizabethkingia does cause a health problem, then it is usually a very severe one. In most cases, this bacteria will affect the bloodstream, causing symptoms like chills, shacking, and fever, plus inflammation of the skin and redness. Because such cases are rare, blood tests that will confirm the presence of Elizabethkingia in the blood are usually done in special laboratories. In uncommon cases, this bacteria can affect the respiratory system, which will cause shortness of breath in patients. In the worst cases scenario, when Elizabethkingia causes meningitis, the symptoms will be a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, and severe headaches. Still, it is worth mentioning that healthy people don’t usually get sick because of Elizabethkingia. The most frequent cases are found in hospitals, among newly born children and elders because they are the ones with a weaker immune system, and among patients with serious health issues, such as cancer, diabetes, or kidney failure.
The reason Elizabethkingia can become a threat to health is that it can develop a resistance to the antibiotics that are usually prescribed by doctors to treat bacterial infections. So, an early diagnosis that can confirm the presence of Elizabethkingia in the organism is extremely important for finding the best treatment in the case of each patient. Thus, tetracycline, aminoglycosides, chloramphenicol, and extended-spectrum beta-lactams can prove to be inefficient in the treatment of virulent Elizabethkingia. Better alternatives may be represented by minocycline, rifampin, ciprofloxacin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and novobiocin. The biggest risk in the case of an infection with this bacteria is septicemia, which can occur and be fatal to the patient if the treatment is not effective and administered in a timely manner. Thus, each patient should be treated individually, taking his medical history into account and severity of the infection.
Can Elizabethkingia become a major threat to public health?
A recent outbreak that took place in Wisconsin, last year, shows how a common bacteria can end up killing 18 people. We are talking here about Elizabethkingiaanophelis, its name coming from the Anopheles mosquito, as it was located in the intestines of this small insect for the first time in Gambia. In 2016, this particular species of bacteria ended up spreading rapidly around Wisconsin, making people get very sick due to blood infections and even losing their lives due to the illness. Most of the victims were elderly people and those that had a bag state of health, their immune system being too weak to fight off the infection. What is shocking about this outbreak is that no one ever recorded such a virulent epidemic caused by this bacteria. It was even more awkward due to the fact that when everything happened, it was winter in Wisconsin, so there were no mosquitos to spread the bug. When authorities counted the victims, a total number of 20 people lost their lives because of Elizabethkingia. 18 died in Wisconsin, 1 in Illinois, and 1 in Michigan.
So what went so terribly wrong? What made a common bacteria turn into a merciless killer? According to genetic analysis that followed the event, Elizabethkingiaanophelis turned into a pathogen, which means that the previously harmless microbe evolved into a more virulent and resistant strain that creates havoc in the organism of people with a compromised immune system. In the case of the outbreak in Wisconsin, the strain of Elizabethkingiaanophelis suffered a massive and obvious mutation, which made it extremely dangerous to people. It is the same kind of mutations that make doctors watch out for new strains of cold or the reason why some strains of E.Coli can live in our guts without causing any disturbances, while some strains of E.Coli can be a real danger to our health.