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A rare tick-borne disease is on the rise in the northeastern United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Babesiosis cases increased 25% between 2011 and 2019, prompting the CDC to add three states — Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — to the list of those where the disease is considered endemic.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is babesiosis and how do I know if I have it?
Babesiosis is caused by the babesia parasite, a type of protozoan that infects red blood cells, which can be carried by blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) in the northeastern and midwestern United States.
The bite of a tick carrying the parasite can send it into a person’s bloodstream.
Some cases are completely asymptomatic, but others present with fever, muscle headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, and other symptoms. A doctor can prescribe antimicrobial drugs to help fight the infection.
In the most extreme cases, babesiosis can be fatal, especially among those who are immunocompromised, says the CDC. The disease can also have life-threatening complications, including low platelet counts, kidney failure, or respiratory distress syndrome.
Although babesiosis cases are on the rise, the disease remains relatively rare, with states reporting more than 1,800 cases of babesiosis per year to the CDC between 2011 and 2019. Compare that to the most common tick-borne condition, the disease Lyme disease: The CDC says it receives 30,000 Lyme case reports each year.
For both diseases, the actual number of cases is likely to be much higher, the CDC says, because data is reported state by state and procedures vary. Ten states, for example, do not require babesiosis reporting at all.
Where is it spreading?
Among the states that require reporting, eight experienced significant increases in the number of cases from 2011 to 2019, according to the CDC’s first comprehensive national surveillance of babesiosis.
In three states — Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — the number of cases has increased so much that the CDC says babesiosis should be considered endemic.
Increases were also seen in states where the disease was already endemic: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The CDC did not give an explicit reason for the increase in babesiosis cases, but state programs that track cases of tick-borne diseases have said that milder winters could be behind rising infection numberssince they allow ticks to remain active all year round.
In the long term, a spread of babesiosis could affect the blood supply, the CDC says. The agency says the parasite can be transmitted through a blood transfusion and that those who contract the disease through contaminated blood have “significantly worse health outcomes.”
The Food and Drug Administration already recommends screening for the parasite at blood donation centers in the 14 states with the most cases, as well as in Washington, DC.
What can I do to avoid getting babesiosis?
In general, the best way to avoid babesia parasite is to avoid blacklegged ticks. What it means: Avoid tick encounters entirely.
babesia is usually propagated by young nymphs, which can be as small as a poppy seed.
Planning on heading into the woods or brushing in these warmer spring and summer months? Bobbi Pritt, a Mayo Clinic parasitologist, told NPR’s Sheila Eldred some of her best advice to avoid tick bites:
- Wear long sleeves and long pants, and even tuck your cuffs into your socks if there’s a gap.
- Spray exposed skin with repellent.
- Remove your clothing before going back inside.
- Throw those clothes in the dryer on high for a few minutes to crush any stragglers.
- And don’t forget to check on your pets and children.
And if they do bite you, stay calm. Not all ticks carry harmful bacteria.
But it also doesn’t hurt to check if your tick has black legs. If so, Pratt recommends sticking it in the freezer so you can take it to the doctor should any symptoms arise.