Move over, Lyme disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another dangerous tick-borne disease is burrowing its way through the Lower Hudson Valley and coastal areas of the Northeast.
Far less common than Lyme disease but also carried by the diminutive deer tick, Babesiosis is caused by an infection from the parasite Babesia microti. It thrives in red blood cells and, for those with compromised immune systems, can be fatal.
In 2001, six cases of Babesiosis in the Lower Hudson Valley were reported to the CDC. But in 2008, 119 cases were reported. In areas where Lyme disease is endemic, Babesiosis is becoming more common, but it is often masked by Lyme-like symptoms. Dr. Kenneth B. Liegner is a physician who has specialized in treating tick-borne diseases and related disorders for the past 25 years. Until last year he had a private practice in Armonk, and he now practices in Pawling. "Babesiosis is as dangerous as Lyme disease," he says. However, unlike Lyme, it isn't necessarily manifested with joint pains, cardiac symptoms or a rash. It destroys red blood cells and can cause anemia, and its symptoms can resemble those of malaria, he says.
Particularly unnerving is that there is no systematic screening for it in standard blood analyses, which could threaten blood supplies. According to the CDC, Babesiosis is the most frequently reported infection transmitted through blood transfusion in the United States. "There are more sensitive tests specifically for Babesiosis," says Liegner. "But there's only one lab in the United States that does that kind of testing." Otherwise, he says, blood samples are not routinely screened for the disease.
Manifestations of Babesiosis differs from one patient to the next, with some people experiencing few if any signs and others suffering with flu-like symptoms for days or even months. But unlike Lyme disease, no alarm in the form of a glaring rash appears at the onset of Babesiosis. Liegner says the condition can be life threatening when someone's immune system is already compromised, such as by cancer or HIV, for example. But it's not unheard of, he says, for those who have healthy immune systems who are suffering from Babesiosis to experience severe and possibly life-threatening symptoms.
Other symptoms can include fever, chills, night sweats, headache and muscle aches and pains, as well as fatigue.
Babesiosis can lead to such complications as kidney, lung or heart failure if not detected early. Antimicrobial drugs are successful in treating it, however those with serious complications can be less responsive to medication. Liegner suggests that anyone who suspects they have contracted the disease see a physician who specializes in the treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
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