Learn all about this emerging zoonotic tickborne parasite
Babesiosis sounds like a fun word. But, in all seriousness, there’s nothing good about it. Babesiosis is a tick-borne disease that can be fatal. Per 2019 statistics, fatality rates of patients hospitalized ranged from 6-9%. Approximately 20% of immunocompromised patients who contracted the infection and those who got it through transfusion of contaminated blood products died. People get the disease through the bite of a tick infected with Babesia microti, a microscopic parasite that infects red blood cells. Per AABB.org, “The incidence of babesiosis has increased exponentially in the U.S. Northeast from 2011 to 2019.” And, unfortunately, it remains on the rise. Here’s what you should know.
NBC News reports that babesiosis is currently increasing in eight states. The disease is now labeled an endemic in three new ones to include Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Other high-incident states are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. However, Minnesota and Wisconsin reported recent declines. Researchers believe that increased deer populations and deforestation are contributing factors for the spread of babesiosis, coupled with rising global temperatures, mild winters, and increased humidity that allows ticks to thrive. Per WION News, the CDC claimed that over 16,456 cases have been reported by 37 states from 2011 to 2019, with the largest numbers coming from New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut respectively during that time.
Up to 20% of reported adult cases and 50% of pediatric ones are asymptomatic, meaning those patients show no symptoms. Signs of babesiosis include fever, chills, sweats, headaches, body aches, nausea, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. Onset of symptoms may sometimes be described as slow. Infections may also lead to a type of anemia called hemolytic anemia. Older folks and those who are immunocompromised are more likely to have severe outcomes such as low blood platelet counts, kidney failure, and respiratory distress from fluid build up in the lungs as examples. Unlike Lyme disease, another tick-borne illness that causes fever, muscle ache, and may have an accompanying bullseye rash to help identify the presence of Lyme disease, babesiosis has no tell-tale rash. Because cases are rising in numerous states, medical experts are doing their best to increase awareness of the disease. They also work to clear up myths. Currently, babesiosis is not spread from person to person. However, it can be transmitted via blood transfusion with “significantly worse outcomes” for patients.
Since babesiosis is more severe than Lyme disease, and cases rising in numerous states, there are safety concerns. Babesiosis was originally recognized as a disease of cattle and other domesticated animals. The first human case appeared in 1957 and resulted in the death of a Croatian farmer. In the 1960s, the first North American case appeared on Nantucket Island, rendering it a nationally notifiable condition. In the U.S., the primary agent of transmission is the bite of the Ixodes scapularis, or deer tick, the same tick species responsible for Lyme disease. The greatest risk of being bitten by nymphs and female ticks exists during spring, summer, and fall.
While there currently are no immunizations for babesiosis, there are ways that people can protect themselves from infection. Avoiding ticks is the primary method. In the Northeast, babesiosis occurs both inland and in coastal areas. Ticks are known to live in grassy, brushy, and wooded places. Ticks may also live on animals and can sometimes live in yards and neighborhoods. The CDC recommends that those traveling in tick-infested areas treat clothing and gear (not skin) with 0.5% permethrin to kill ticks in contact with treated materials. Wear light-colored clothing which makes ticks easier to see. Before heading outside, cover exposed skin with long-sleeve shirts and long pants. If needed, tuck pant legs into socks or boots for added protection. When moving around outdoors, avoid wooded and brushy areas and those with high grass and leaf litter. Try to walk in the center of trails when possible. Additionally, apply EPA-registered insect repellents containing at least 20% DEET to keep ticks away. Talk to your veterinarian about ways to keep your pet safe.
Once back indoors, check clothing, gear, pets, and people for ticks. Shower right away to wash off potential unattached ticks. Inform the doctor if you’ve been bitten. If removal of attached ticks occur within 36 hours, risk of tick-borne infection is minimal. Thus, it’s important to act quickly and know how to completely remove a tick from a body using fine-tip tweezers. Take care not to squeeze, crush, or puncture the body of the tick which may contain infectious fluids. Small ticks can be hard to spot, thus folks who are experiencing symptoms and suspect they may have suffered a tick bite should notify their doctors. Note that symptoms often appear one to eight weeks after being bitten. While anyone can get babesiosis, the elderly and those with medical conditions such as weakened immune systems may have more severe symptoms. Nevertheless, early medical intervention is key.
This article is purely informational and is not intended as a medical resource or substitute for medical advice. As always, address any questions you have with a medical professional.
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