Babesiosis is Tick-Borne Like Lyme Disease
People who have been bitten by a tick that carries the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease may develop babesiosis as well. In fact, babesiosis sometimes is a co-infection along with Lyme disease.
A parasite called Babesia microti can be carried by deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis), which are the same ticks that harbor the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease. These ticks mostly populate the Northeast and upper Midwest of the United States, especially New England, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Symptoms of babesiosis
These microscopic parasites invade your red blood cells and may or may not cause symptoms within about a week or as long as months after the bite. Some individuals who contract babesiosis don't experience any symptoms at all.
When symptoms do occur, they are similar to those associated with Lyme disease. One possible distinguishing feature is that babesiosis often presents with a high fever, along with chills. Lyme disease may—but not always—start with milder fever and chills along with fatigue and headache.
As babesiosis progresses, individuals may experience severe sweating, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, headache, and fatigue. As you can see, these symptoms are like those of Lyme disease, and it is possible for individuals to have both infections at the same time, or one or the other.
For some individuals babesiosis can result in anemia, lymphopenia, or thrombocytopenia (because the parasites destroy red blood cells [erythrocytes]) or even be life-threatening. People who fall into the latter category include the elderly, individuals who have a compromised immune system because of cancer or AIDS, or those who have a serious health conditions such as kidney or liver disease.
Is it babesiosis?
Babesiosis may be diagnosed by examining a patient’s blood to detect Babesia inside red blood cells. However, because invasion of the erythrocytes can be extremely low during early stages of the disease, it is very possible to get negative test results. Another challenge when diagnosing babesiosis is that currently available tests can detect only three species of Babesia, and there may be others yet unidentified.
Therefore, multiple blood tests may be needed and/or doctors may order the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which can uncover Babesia DNA in blood. In fact, a new (April 2015) study in the journal Ticks and Tick Borne Diseases reported that use of a multiplex real-time PCR test showed “a diagnostic sensitivity and probable specificity of 100%” and that the test “is as good or better than a blood smear for detection of B. microti in routine clinical practice.”
In addition, diagnosis can involve testing for antibodies to Babesia (use of immunofluorescence of IgM and IgG antibodies), which may help confirm a diagnosis. Since babesiosis is caused by a tick bite, your doctor should also have your blood tested for other tick-borne infections as well.
Treatment of babesiosis
Treatment of babesiosis can include a combination of an antiprotozoal drug called atovaquone (Mepron) and an antibiotic called azithromycin for 7 to 10 days. This approach is usually for mild to moderate cases. Severe cases can call for intravenous clindamycin (an antibiotic) and oral quinine (an antimalarial drug).
How common is babesiosis?
This is a good question, and the answer may elude researchers for some time. In a 2012 New York Times article, Yale researchers and tick-borne disease expert Dr. Peter J. Krause noted that underreporting of the disease will probably continue for a long time.
One thousand cases of babesiosis were reported in 2011, the first year of national surveillance. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that 27 states had reported 1,762 cases of babesiosis.
Another good question is, how many people with Lyme disease also have babesiosis? Since the two diseases have similar symptoms yet different causative organisms and treatments, it is an avenue that needs more research.
Brody JE. Another tick-borne disease to guard against. New York Times.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Nathavitharana RR, Mitty JA. Diseases from North America: focus on tick-borne infections. Clinical Medicine 2015 Feb; 15(1): 74-77
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Wang G et al. Utilization of a real-time PCR assay for diagnosis of Babesia microti infection in clinical practice. Ticks and Tick Borne Diseases 2015 Apr; 6(3): 376-82