Sign are critters that can cause a whole host of health problems (not just Lyme disease). Now, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the tick-borne disease babesiosis has spread rapidly over the past decade, giving more reason than ever to be aware of the parasite and the diseases it carries. So it is only natural to wonder about the causes, treatment and prevention methods of babesiosis so that you can protect yourself and others from contracting the harmful disease.
The report from the GGD showed the trends in reported cases of babesiosis. The data showed that the incidence of babesiosis in the US increased significantly in the northeastern states between 2011 and 2019. A total of 16,456 cases of babesiosis were reported to the CDC by 37 states. New York reported the highest number of cases (4,738), followed by Massachusetts (4,136) and Connecticut (2,200). The three states with the highest reported incidence were Rhode Island (18.0 per 100,000 population in 2015), Maine (10.3 in 2019), and Massachusetts (9.1 in 2019).
“Three states (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont) that were not considered to have endemic babesiosis had significantly increased incidences and reported a number of cases similar to or higher than that in the seven states with known endemic transmission” , the report concluded. . Because of these alarming findings, tick prevention and traveler awareness are paramount.
Babesiosis isn’t particularly new, but it has made gains in both case numbers and recognition, he says David Cennimo, MD, an infectious disease expert and associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It’s a tick-borne disease caused by a parasite (Babesia) that infects red blood cells.” He notes that babesiosis is often referred to as “American malaria.”
This tick-borne disease isn’t just spreading now, says Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security. “[Babesiosis] has always been spreading, but it seems to affect a wider geographic range than once thought to be largely limited,” he explains. “That could be a result of more awareness, more testing, and a change in the required tick or the deer with which the tick is associated.”
Once infected, a patient’s symptoms can range from mild illness to severe sepsis, especially in people who are immunocompromised or have liver dysfunction, says Dr. Cennimo. “Clinical presentation is usually fever and mild flu-like illness. But severe cases can lead to severe anemia, organ failure and even death.” Dr. However, Adalja says many infected individuals are asymptomatic.
You may also develop the following symptoms, according to the CDC:
- Pain in the body
- Loss of appetite
Babesiosis can also cause hemolytic anemia, which is the destruction of red blood cells. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these symptoms may include:
- Pale skin
- A spleen or liver that is larger than normal
- Pain in the back and abdomen
Symptoms can start within a week, but they can also take months to appear.
Humans are most commonly infected by the bite of a black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick, which is infected with the parasites, says Dr. Cennimo. “This is the same sign vector that carries Lyme disease. So if you live in a Lyme risk area, you could be in a Babesia risk area.”
While infection via tick bite is the most common way to contract the disease, notes Dr. Adalja notes that people can rarely develop babesiosis from blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected person.
The most common way to treat babesiosis is through a course of antibiotics. However, not all antibiotics will work for everyone. Dr. Adalja says a combination of atovaquone and azithromycin is the mainstay of treatment, but clindamycin plus quinine can also be used. “In severe cases, red blood cell exchange transfusions may be used,” he explains.
Prevention of babesiosis
People can prevent babesiosis and other tick-borne diseases by avoiding tick bites, says Dr. Cennimo. He advises people to use sign repellent and do regular tick checks after you’ve been outside. “And since we have warmer winters, ticks become active all year round, so the period of risk needs to be reconsidered.”
Madeline, Prevention‘s assistant editor, has a history of health writing through her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD and through her personal research at the university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience – and she helps strategize for success throughout Prevention‘s social media platforms.