Although it lacks the name recognition Lyme disease has, a potentially fatal tick-borne illness called babesiosis is on the rise. Here’s what you need to know.
How is babesiosis transmitted?
The CDC reports that most cases of babesiosis develop when a bite from an infected deer tick or blacklegged tick, the same ticks that carry Lyme disease, injects the Babesia parasite into a human’s bloodstream. This isn’t something that jumps from person to person like the flu or the chicken pox. But, it can be spread through blood transfusions. It can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy and childbirth.
What are the symptoms of babesiosis?
Many healthy people won’t have any reaction as their immune system fights off the parasite. Others will develop flu-like symptoms. While most cases will be mild, severe reactions can cause respiratory failure and damage vital organs like the heart, kidneys and liver. Newborns, seniors, cancer patients and other people with weaker immune systems are most at risk. In fact, even with proper treatment with antibiotics and other medications, approximately one fifth of people with compromised immune systems who develop babesiosis will die, according to the Columbia University Medical Center.
How is babesiosis diagnosed?
Identifying babesiosis is tricky. Flu-like symptoms are a common problem with many possible causes. Because it takes a week or more for symptoms to develop, many patients won’t associate their symptoms with a tick bite. Some might not even have noticed they were bitten since the ticks responsible are so tiny. Adding to the confusion, one tick bite can trigger both Lyme disease and babesiosis. If a doctor does suspect babesiosis, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is to send the patient’s blood to a medical lab where it can be examined under a microscope for the presence of Babesia parasites.
Who is at risk?
Like Lyme disease, babesiosis is most commonly found in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. But, babesiosis is a danger everyone needs to be aware of. As the National Institutes of Health explains, anyone who has a blood transfusion could potentially be infected because there is no efficient way to test the nation’s blood supply.
How can you protect yourself?
Awareness is your greatest defense. Know if you live in or have visited an area where babesiosis is prevalent. Perform regular skin checks so that you’ll discover any tick bites quickly. If a summer flu bug sends you to the doctor, remember to mention any tick bites you’ve received. The information won’t matter if you’re dealing with a virus. But, if you’re actually battling a tick-borne disease, it may be the key to getting a correct diagnosis and proper treatment.
In the beautiful, rural area that I call home, ticks are unavoidable. Despite knowing the dangers, I’d grown fairly cavalier about Lyme disease; I’d lost count of how many times I’d been tested for it. Then, a tick bite led to a Lyme disease diagnosis while I was breastfeeding, raising the terrifying possibility of passing the disease to my infant. That experience made me take the threat of tick-borne illness more seriously. Now, after reading about the growing risks from babesiosis in Forbes, Discovery, and U.S. News and World Report, I intend to be extra vigilant.
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