Hospital officials should be aware of an unusual bacterial outbreak taking place in Wisconsin that has yet to be explained, and could pose a threat elsewhere.

The outbreak of the unusually named Elizabethkingia anophelis bacteria as of April 13 had caused at least 18 deaths out of the 59 confirmed cases and another death related to four possible cases reported since Nov. 1, 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Public Health.

The nature of the outbreak, which is focused in the southeastern part of the state, should invite hospital infection control specialists to act if there are any signs of an Elizabethkingia bacterial infection in a patient. “Because this [type of bacteria] isn’t necessarily on the radar of many places, if you were to get a sporadic case or two, you might just think this is unusual, but not something to worry about,” says Nasia Safdar, M.D., medical director for infection control at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics and a faculty physician at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, both in Madison, Wis.

“What health care systems need to realize is that this is a much larger outbreak,” Safdar says. “If they get even a single case of Elizabethkingia, they should contact public health, retrieve the specimen that was positive and send it to the state lab in Wisconsin’s case, or the CDC, if necessary,” she says. Staffers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are investigating.

The outbreak is notable for the type of bacteria involved and for the apparent lack of a common source for the reported infections. “Elizabethkingia is generally not considered to be very virulent or a highly pathogenic organism,” Safdar says.

She adds that health care is not the likely source, because although some of the affected patients have had health care exposure, many have not.

More test results are pending that could help to identify the source, she says.

Get the full story from our sister magazine, Hospitals & Health Networks, plus steps recommended by the CDC to address this concern.