Newly Notable Tick-Carried Disease Is on the Rise...and It's Not Lyme

Ticks don't just carry Lyme disease. The babesia tick parasite invades red blood cells and sickens humans, too. Time to review your anti-tick tactics!

July 15, 2011

Ick factor: A new report shows incidents of tick-borne babesiosis are climbing.

Lyme disease is complicated. Hard to reliably diagnose with lab tests, the tick-borne disease can cause a wide range of symptoms that often wax, wane, and migrate, confusing doctors and patients alike. (In fact, many doctors don't even acknowledge that chronic Lyme exists, leaving many infected patients in chronic pain.)


But Lyme isn't the only disease that can come from a tick bite. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning about the growing threat of babesiosis, a protozoan parasite that infiltrates and reproduces in our red blood cells, is on the rise in certain parts of the country. "Babesiosis can be found in ticks throughout the country, but is most concentrated in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West Coast," explains Andrea Gaito, MD, a rheumatologist on the board of directors for the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS). "All doctors have seen an increase in the cases of babesiosis because more ticks are infected."

Babesiosis is caused by the parasite Babesia microti, which is most often carried by deer ticks. Most cases of babesiosis, a malarialike ailment featuring fever, chills, headache, nausea, muscle pains, fatigue, anemia, shortness of breath, and even anxiety and panic, occur in the Northeast and Midwest; between 2001 and 2008, researchers recorded a 20-fold increase in babesiosis in the Lower Hudson Valley in New York. According to the 2012 CDC statistics, 97 percent of the cases occurred in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York (including New York City), Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. The ailment struck everyone from babies to 98-year-olds, with more than 80 percent first experiencing symptoms between June and August, prime tick season. While healthy people may not even know they've been infected and recover without treatment, the very young, elderly, and those with stressed immune systems from other health problems, including Lyme disease or another infection from a tick bite, face a more serious, possibly life-threatening illness. Blood smear tests can detect the presence of babesia germs, however they aren't always accurate because the germs may infect less than 1 percent of circulating blood.

Antibiotics and malaria medication, such as azithromycin and mepron, are commonly used to treat babesiosis. As of January 2011, the infection became a notifiable disease, meaning new cases will be reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This will make it easier to monitor the disease.

Tick-borne diseases are expected to worsen as a result of climate change. Lyme disease occurs now virtually all over the country, and as climate destabilization worsens, scientists anticipate further spread of ticks and the diseases they carry. By 2080, researchers expect the Lyme disease zone in Canada to double.

And while Lyme disease dominates the headlines in terms of tick-borne diseases, a 2010 study published in the journal Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases found that of the nearly 300 ticks tested in New York state, 30 percent tested as harboring polymicrobial infection, meaning infection from more than one type of microbe. Besides Lyme and babesia, other tick-borne diseases, known as co-infections, include bartonella, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ehrlichiosis, among others.

To prevent babesiosis, the name of the game is avoiding a tick bite. (Many people infected don't even recall being bitten because ticks are so small and inject a numbing agent into your skin when they attach.) The same measures you'd use to prevent Lyme disease apply to babesia prevention. For natural ways to protect against ticks, tap these stories:

Prevent Lyme Disease with Showers and Fences

5 Ways to Keep Lyme Disease out of Your Yard

If you fear you're infected with a tick-borne disease, and screening for other conditions are coming back negative, seek care from a Lyme-literate medical doctor (LLMD).