Elizabethkingia - What's in a Name?

Elizabethkingia anophelis has suddenly appeared in the news. It is a bacteria that has been making people sick in multiple parts of Wisconsin. The state has seen more than 40 infected, at least 18 die, all infected with a bacteria that has been relatively unknown – Elizabethkingia anophelis.

The bacteria seems to attack those who already aren't in the best health. They were largely over 65 years of age with reportedly other health problems, in nursing homes or having been in hospitals.


To find out the basics about this infection, please click here or here.

Why Is It Called Elizabethkingia? 

The bacteria does have a funny name. It's the combined first and last name of the microbiologist who first identified the bacteria – Elizabeth O. King. Elizabeth King was a microbiologist who worked during her career to identify difficult-to-identify bacteria. There is now an award for microbiologists named in her honor.

There are other bacteria named for her as well. The name Elizabethkingae is the genus. There are other species in this genus. These include many types found in nature including Elizabethkingia meningoseptica and Elizabethkingia miricola.

She tracked down many elusive causes of infections, such as endocarditis or meningitis. She did work on Diphtheria,which used to be a terrible cause of death. She did work on C Diff, Listeria, and Tularemia.

As such, she is also responsible for identifying Kingella kingae.

This is a rare cause of endocarditis – an infection in the heart, primarily of heart valves. This is one of the HACEK organisms (i.e. it's the initial K). Doctors look for HACEK organisms when looking to identify a cause of endocarditis when a cause is not easily diagnosed. These are fastidious gram negative bacteria that cause only a small percentage of endocarditis cases.

Her work is a reminder of the need to look and identify what is out there – even if we don't know what it does, or whether it's a problem. Many of these bacteria were identified before we knew what they did to people – and well before there were many healthy, thriving patients with substantial immunodeficiencies – from medications and therapies to treat cancer or autoimmune diseases or else from HIV or other diseases, who could fall ill to these diseases.

Why is It Called E. anophelis?

You might just notice that the name also reflects the type of mosquito that carries malaria. Elizabethkingia is found throughout nature, especially in wet environments – from soil to water to hospital sinks. Well, Elizabethkingia anophelis also is found in a more unusual location. It lives in the midgut of the mosquitoAnopheles gambiae, which is the mosquito that spreads malaria. It is seen in more than one stage of the lifecycle of the mosquito. We are only just learning about the role this bacteria may play in the gut of mosquito, which like our microbiome, may be important. It is even thought that it might be mosquitoes that first introduce it into some environments, though infections that spread within hospitals are spread by something other than the mosquito itself.

The recent outbreak in Wisconsin has nothing to do with malaria though, well presumably. This type of Anopheles mosquitoes isn't exactly found in Wisconsin – and definitely in the winter. (There are, however, other species of Anopheles mosquitoes found in the state).

Novel Infections Are Novel

This is all a reminder that novel infections are novel. We can never predict what the next outbreak will be. It's best that we ensure we study a wide range of potential pathogens. We never want to be just fighting the last war when fighting infectious diseases. No one would have guessed that a bacteria studied for its role in a malaria mosquito lifecycle would show up in Nursing Homes in Wisconsin.

This bacteria likely will affect those who are already debilitated. However, we want anyone who seeks healthcare to be not harmed by seeking healthcare. The basic rule of medicine is "Do no Harm." Preventing nosocomial infections is fundamental in maintaining that medicine does no harm.

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