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Another deadly tick-borne disease is now endemic in Maine

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(BDN) -- Experts in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning of a new tick-borne disease on the rise in Maine that's potentially more serious than Lyme disease.

But for those who work closely with ticks in the state, this news is not surprising.

This week the U.S. CDC added Maine to a list of New England states where the potentially deadly babesiosis is now considered endemic. Classifying a disease as endemic means it is always present in a particular region with its spread and rates following a predictable pattern.

"Here in Maine we have considered babesiosis to be endemic for years at this point," said Dr. Megan Porter, a public health educator with Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "But it is shocking to see some of those numbers in the [U.S. CDC] report."

Cases of babesiosis — a disease carried and transmitted by deer ticks with symptoms that include fever, chills and lethargy — have skyrocketed in Maine from nine reported in 2011 to 138 in 2019, according to the U.S. CDC. The report comes as unseasonably warm weather in recent years has increased tick activity throughout the state, extending what has traditionally been.

At the University of Maine Cooperative Extension tick lab, they have been tracking babesiosis in Maine for more than 20 years.

"We've had babesiosis cases [in Maine] since 2001," said Griffin Dill, tick lab coordinator. "But they stayed relatively low at 5-10 cases a year until about 2013, when they really started to jump up to 30 or 40 cases a year."

There are now around 200 cases a year, Dill said.

"That seems like a relatively low number," he said. "But like Lyme disease, there is a good chance it is underreported."

Like Lyme disease, babesiosis is carried and transmitted by deer ticks. Unlike Lyme, it does not produce a distinctive bulls-eye rash at the site of the bite, according to the CDC. There are no unique visible symptoms associated with babesiosis and it is usually diagnosed by a blood test.

"The symptoms of babesiosis are fever, chills, and feeling tired or lethargic," Porter said. "These are the sorts of symptoms you feel with influenza, COVID or other tick-borne illness."

A unique symptom to babesiosis is anemia or a low red blood cell count.

In extreme cases babesiosis can cause acute respiratory failure, heart failure, liver failure, renal failure and death.

"Because the symptoms can be so severe and people can die, we want people to take it seriously," said Porter, who recommended anyone who is experiencing those symptoms and remembers being bitten in the past month get tested.

Porter was unaware if there has ever been a report of anyone dying from babesiosis in Maine.

Deer ticks can also carry and transmit powassan, a virus that causes brain infection in humans. Last year a Waldo County resident died after contracting the disease.

There is overlap between the symptoms of babesiosis and Lyme disease. In both there can be chills, fever, fatigue, muscle pain and headaches.

It's also possible to have both Lyme disease and babesiosis at the same time.

"We have tested ticks here in the labs and had ticks themselves co-infected with Lyme and babesiosis [and] if there are ticks co-infected they can transmit both diseases to humans," Dill said.

Both diseases have been on the rise in Maine in recent years.

According to a report to the Maine Legislature's health and human services committee last summer by the Maine CDC, there was a 35 percent increase in Lyme disease and a 200 percent increase in babesiosis over the previous year.

The U.S. CDC study looked at the babesiosis trend over a nine-year period. In that time it increased by 1,422 percent in Maine. That's the highest jump among the New England states second only to Vermont, which saw a 1,602 percent increase.

With reports of ticks every month in Maine for the past couple of years, there is no longer a "tick season." Since ticks are not true hibernators — they become active again when temperatures rise — the state's unseasonably warm winter weather is driving an increase in tick activity.

"It's been an interesting winter so far from the standpoint that we usually get a period of no tick submissions," Dill said. "This year we got reports all the way into December, during the January warm up and for most of February."

This could mean ticks could be quite active this spring and summer.

"With warmer temperatures we are experiencing over winter that only helps the ticks survive and emerge strong in the spring looking for a host," Dill said. "We could be in for a busy tick time."

Porter stresses there is no reason to panic in the wake of the new U.S. CDC report. But people should be smart about their outdoor activities.

Dill encourages anyone who spends time outdoors when it's above 40 degrees Fahrenheit to wear shirts with long sleeves and pants with long legs tucked into your socks, use tick repellent, and conduct full body checks when you get back inside. Pets should also be checked over.

Once you are back inside, Porter recommends tossing your clothes into the dryer and running it on high for 10 to 15 minutes as that will kill any ticks that hitchhiked on them.

If you do find a tick latched on to your skin, Porter said to remove it as soon as possible to cut the time any pathogens have to get into your system. If you want to send the tick to the University of Maine tick lab for testing, place it in a sealed jar with rubbing alcohol to kill and preserve it.

"The biggest take home message is that babesiosis is just like the other tick-borne diseases in Maine," Porter said. "It can be prevented by not being bitten by an infected tick."

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