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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.
Cases of babesiosis increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2019, prompting the CDC to add three states — Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — to the list of states 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 causes Babes parasite – a type of protozoan that infects red blood cells – that can be carried by black-legged ticks (also known as deer ticks) in the northeastern and midwestern United States.
A bite from a tick carrying the parasite can send it into a person’s bloodstream.
Some cases are completely asymptomatic, but others are accompanied by fever, muscle headache, muscle pain, joint pain and other symptoms. A doctor may prescribe antimicrobials to fight infections.
In extreme cases, babesiosis can be fatal, especially among the immunocompromised, the CDC says. The disease can also be associated with life-threatening complications, including low platelet counts, kidney failure, or respiratory distress syndrome.
Although cases of babesiosis are on the rise, the disease remains relatively rare, with states reporting more than 1,800 cases of babesiosis annually to the CDC between 2011 and 2019. Compare that to the most common tick-borne disease, Lyme disease: The CDC says it receives 30,000 Lyme case reports each year.
The actual number of cases of both diseases is likely much higher, the CDC says, because data is reported by state and procedures vary. For example, ten states do not require reporting of babesiosis at all.
Where does it spread?
Eight of the states requiring reporting saw a significant increase in 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 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 a specific reason for the increase in babesiosis cases, but state programs that track cases of tick-borne diseases say milder winters may be behind the increase in infections because they allow ticks to remain active year-round.
In the long term, the spread of babesiosis can affect the bloodstream, the CDC says. The agency says the parasite can be transmitted through blood transfusions 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 highest cases and in Washington, DC.
What can I do to prevent babesiosis infection?
Usually best to avoid Babes the parasite is to avoid black-legged ticks. Which means: Avoid tick encounters altogether.
Babes It is usually spread by young nymphs, which can be as small as a poppy seed.
Are you planning to head to the woods or brush in these warm spring and summer months? Bobbi Pritt, a Mayo Clinic parasitologist, told NPR’s Sheila Eldred her top tips for avoiding tick bites:
- Wear long sleeves and long pants, even tuck the cuffs into socks if they have slits.
- Spray repellent on exposed skin.
- Take off your clothes before going back indoors.
- Toss those clothes in the dryer on high for a few minutes to smother the wanderers.
- And don’t forget to check on your pets and children.
And if you do bite, keep calm. Not every tick carries harmful bacteria.
But it also doesn’t hurt to check if your tick has black legs. If so, Pratt recommends putting it in the freezer so you can take it to the doctor in case symptoms develop.