Lyme disease isn't the only worry for outdoor lovers this summer. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) also carry a lesser known parasite that gives rise to a potentially fatal illness called babesiosis.
The protozoan Babesia microti, commonly harbored in certain ticks and mice species, has made a comeback in recent years. Despite its discovery in the late 1960s, babesiosis cases have increased in the lower Hudson Valley area of New York state, according to a recent study in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Examining seven counties' hospital cases from 2001 to 2008, the team found the annual number of infections rose from six to 119 during the period. Most patients studied were exposed through deer tick bites, while two were infected via blood transfusions. Researchers suspect the illness can occur alongside Lyme disease as well, making it difficult for doctors to give an accurate diagnosis.
Babesiosis can be troublesome for people venturing into tick-infested areas in the summer months. Though the parasite isn't as widespread as the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease, the two microbes overlap in areas of the Northeast and upper Midwest.
But the danger of babesiosis is that it can thrive undetected. Blood smear tests can detect the parasite, but they aren't always effective. Even more, some people fail to show any signs of babesiosis infection. Others will experience flu-like symptoms, including head, body and muscle aches, fevers, chills, and fatigue, according to the CDC.
Once introduced to the bloodstream, usually through the infected saliva in tick bites, Babesia parasites invade and feed on the body's red blood cells. The protozoans multiply within the cells and shed new parasites into the bloodstream, where they’re free to infect other cells.
If left untreated, babesiosis infections can result in organ failure and be fatal for older individuals or people with compromised immune systems. For most people, however, treatment is effective, especially early on.
Avoiding tick bites is a large step toward reducing the risk of being exposed to tick-borne illnesses. If you're living or visiting areas where deer ticks are more common, experts say it's a good idea to stay on trails, avoid areas overgrown by grass and bushes, wear pants, and use repellents such as DEET to repel ticks. Once you get back indoors, checking for ticks on your skin, hair and clothing helps, too.
First photo by Scott Bauer/USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Second photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons