By now, most people in Wisconsin are well acquainted with the microorganism, Elizabethkingia anophelis, where the largest known outbreak ever has been reported since late last year.  E. anophelis, the Gram-negative bacteria is the cause of an ongoing and deadly outbreak in Wisconsin and, recently, Michigan and Illinois, is generally a rare cause of illness in healthy individuals.

Elizabethkingia anophelis growing on a blood agar plate. Image/CDC's Special Bacteriology Reference Lab
Elizabethkingia anophelis growing on a blood agar plate.
Image/CDC’s Special Bacteriology Reference Lab

However, local Wisconsin media are reporting that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) kept information about the outbreak from the public for months.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Wisconsin was first notified of six potential cases between December 29, 2015 and January 4, 2016 and set up statewide surveillance on January 5, 2016, but the DHS did not inform the public until a press release on Mar. 2nearly a month after contacting the CDC for help in the investigation. Action 2 News made an open records request for documents detailing the state’s response to the outbreak. Hospitals and labs were alerted to be on the outlook in January.

Concerning the issue with notifying the public, DHS said in a statement:

This was a rare situation in which we recognized that releasing information without being able to offer any direction on how to avoid it, would inspire fear among the public.  We weighed the risk of inspiring fear, against the value of transparency, in determining the appropriate time to share our limited information with the public.  Even though we still did not know the source, and could not offer prevention education, we had enough data to show the infection was affecting a mainly older population, and all patients had underlying health problems, and cases  were in the south and southeastern part of the state.   This allowed us to share what we knew about Elizabethkingia, while tempering the potential of widespread, unwarranted fears.

Officials at the CDC confirmed that 61 individuals have tested positive for the bacteria and recorded 20 deaths as of April 13. Federal health officials say about 5-10 cases per state per year are reported in the United States, with a few small, localized outbreaks reported in both the United States and other countries, usually in healthcare settings.