Since late last year, a bacteria known as Elizabethkingia anopheles, has been causing a deadly outbreak of infections in elderly patients living in the Midwest. Predominantly found in Wisconsin, to date there have been more than 70 confirmed cases, with at least 20 of those resulting in the death of patients.
Most concerning is the fact that despite efforts from the CDC and state health officials, the source of the infections is still undiscovered, even though it was suspected to originate from tap water. Furthermore, this strain is highly resistant to most commonly prescribed antibiotics.
What is Elizabethkingia?
Named after the microbiologist, Elizabeth King, Elizabethkingia is commonly found in soil, rivers, and reservoirs. Until now, this bacterium is rarely known to cause illness in people, usually only resulting in 5-10 reported cases per state in a given year. However, this particular outbreak has proven especially dangerous to people over the age of 65 who have prior illness or weakened immune systems. Found in both the blood stream and respiratory system, it can cause symptoms including fever, shortness of breath, and chills, but due to the nature of the patients it infects, it is still unclear whether the bacteria is the actual cause of death or if it simply enhances previously existing conditions.
Does This Happen Often?
While this may seem like a rare occurrence, the CDC estimates that hospitals are known for spreading lethal infections, affecting 1 in 25 patients in the United States alone. Another study done by HealthGrades found this number to be 1 in 9. Moreover, in 2011 alone, it was estimated that 722,000 patients contracted an infection during a stay in an acute care hospital in the US with 75,000 of them dying as a result.
While it makes sense that a location, such as a hospital, which houses sick patients would be especially prone to the spread of an infection, the above numbers show that situations like these are alarmingly common. So common in fact that according to the CDC, the annual direct medical costs of HAI (healthcare-associated infections) in the United States ranges between $28.4 and $33.8 billion, or ten times more than the entire cost of the medical malpractice liability system in the United States as of 2012.
Is This Negligent Behavior?
Some may consider the current Elizabethkingia outbreak as negligence on behalf of hospitals, but in a situation like this where the root cause is still unknown, it does not seem likely. Without even diving into the criteria for proving fault, in 2000, the Columbian Law Journal wrote that, “Despite the overwhelmingly large number of people who die from hospital-acquired infections each year, there are virtually no instances of successful litigation against doctors or hospitals.”
This is the case for a couple of reasons. First, acquiring the necessary information to evaluate a hospital infection case is very challenging. There is rarely a paper trail tracking the record of hospital acquired infections and personal medical records can only tell part of the story. In the case of Elizabethkingia where most of the details are still unknown, any sort of records simply it don’t even exist yet. Second, even if that information is available, proving that a hospital acted “below the standard of care” is both very subjective and requires the cohesive opinion of numerous medical experts.
Despite common belief, not every unfortunate event that occurs at a hospital can be considered a breach of duty or negligent behavior. And as it appears specifically with hospital acquired infections, most personal injury lawyers will tell you that responsibility for these types of cases rarely fall back on the hospital. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if finding the source of the bacteria will open up grounds for negligence as the outbreak continues and new information comes to light.