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This Rare Tick-Borne Illness Is Spreading Fast in the US—Here's What to Know

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Ticks are critters that can cause a slew of health issues (not just Lyme disease). Now, a new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the tick-borne illness babesiosis has been spreading rapidly in the last decade, giving more reason than ever to be aware of the parasite and the diseases it carries. So it's only natural to wonder about babesiosis causes, treatment, and prevention methods, so you can protect yourself and others from catching the harmful disease.

The report from the CDC demonstrated the trends in reported babesiosis cases. The data showed that during 2011-2019, U.S. babesiosis incidence significantly increased in northeastern states. A total of 16,456 cases of babesiosis were reported to CDC by 37 states. New York reported the largest number of cases (4,738), followed by Massachusetts (4,136), and Connecticut (2,200). The three states with the highest reported incidences 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 case counts similar to, or higher than, those in the seven states with the known endemic transmission," concluded the report. Due to these alarming findings, tick prevention and traveler awareness are of the utmost importance.

Babesiosis is not particularly new, but it has shown gains in both numbers of cases and recognition, says David Cennimo, M.D., infectious disease expert and associate professor of medicine & pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "It is a tick-borne illness caused by a parasite (Babesia) that infects red blood cells." He notes that Babesiosis has often been called "American Malaria."

This tick-borne illness is not just spreading now, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security. "[Babesiosis] has always been spreading, but it appears to impact a bigger geographic range than it once was thought to be largely restricted to," he explains. "That can be the result of more awareness, more testing, and a change in the habitat of the requisite tick or the deer that the tick is associated with."

Babesiosis symptoms

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 a mild flu-like illness. But severe cases can experience severe anemia, organ failure, and even death." However, Dr. Adalja says that many infected individuals are asymptomatic.

You can also develop the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

Babesiosis can also cause hemolytic anemia, which is the destruction of red blood cells. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, those symptoms can include:

Symptoms can start within a week, but can also take months to show up.

Babesiosis causes

People are usually infected through the bite of a black-legged tick, otherwise known as a deer tick, that is infected with the parasites, says Dr. Cennimo. "This is the same tick vector that carries Lyme disease. So, if you live in a Lyme risk area, you can be in a Babesia risk area."

While infection via tick bite is the most common way to contract the illness, Dr. Adalja notes that, rarely, people can also develop babesiosis by blood transfusion or organ transplantation from an infected person.

Babesiosis treatment

The most common way to treat babesiosis is through a course of antibiotics. However, not all antibiotics will work for every person. Dr. Adalja says that a combination of atovaquone and azithromycin is the mainstay of treatment, but clindamycin plus quinine can also be used. "In severe cases, exchange transfusions of red blood cells can be used," he explains.

Babesiosis prevention

People can avoid babesiosis, as well as other tick-borne illnesses, by avoiding tick bites, says Dr. Cennimo. He advises people to use tick repellent and do regular tick checks after spending time outdoors. "Also, as we have warmer winters, ticks are becoming active year round, so the period of risk needs to be reconsidered."

Madeleine Haase

Madeleine, Prevention's assistant editor, has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD, and from her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience—and she helps strategize for success across Prevention's social media platforms. 

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